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When Adults Become Cyberbullies: Teens Aren't The Only Online Offenders

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An email exchange among my neighbors this summer began innocently enough. One neighbor was concerned about outdoor cats eating wildlife. He asked the neighborhood listserv leader to email the group about his concerns.

By the time I returned to the email chain late that night, there were bunches of vitriolic replies. Some people defended their own cats; others expressed anger at the outdoor cats' owners. “My cats are barely outside,” one wrote. “They should all wear a loud bell,” wrote another. “They are killing important wildlife,” a third wrote. One cat prowled “aggressively.” One was a “marauder.” Specific cats earned far more venomous comments.

I was stunned. I wanted to announce the neighborhood’s first summer potluck and couldn’t decide if I should post it within this rancorous exchange. I eventually did, starting with, “On a different note…” The cat-shaming and cat-defending emails ended.

One cat prowled 'aggressively.' One was a 'marauder.' Specific cats earned far more venomous comments.

My neighborhood is a model of love and tolerance. We don’t just accept differences, we embrace them. In our backyards and front porches, my neighbors and I discuss how we live in the neighborhood because our children live among people of many races and religions and sexual orientations. We raise our children skilled in the art of the potluck because that not only brings us together to eat, it lets us share and appreciate what each one of us brings to the table.

And yet the contempt for each other’s cats was the kind of cyber-bullying that would worry me if it happened on my adolescent daughters’ Snapchat. When their online chatter seems to be crossing into bullying, I find myself discussing with other parents — at soccer sidelines and the school blacktop — how we are worried about what we are seeing on their phones and what we will each tell our children. But we don’t talk about how we will model tolerance ourselves online.

What experts know about online bullying is that even when it’s not anonymous, it feels far more anonymous than speaking directly to someone, and that this lack of face-to-face contact reduces the empathy one might feel toward the victim. And we know that the crowd effect — which happens when a group of people pile their negative opinions onto a smaller group — is enhanced by a sense of anonymity.

...we don’t talk about how we will model tolerance ourselves online.

In the American Academy of Pediatrics’ new policy statement on media this month, the group changed its one-size-fits-all recommendations to a personalized, balanced approach to creating a plan for each child’s use of media. The accompanying interactive “Family Media Plan” allows each family to input their child’s age to get age-appropriate advice and commit to age-appropriate healthy media behavior.

It’s great. The website allows a family to make specific commitments for each child regarding places they will use and not use devices, times they will use and not use devices, plans for the family to watch media together, online manners and cyber-bullying.

I’m a pediatrician with teenage daughters. At work, I tell parents how to talk to their children about the risks of the internet, and I coach them on talking about cyber-bullying. This new Family Media Plan will be a great addition to my toolkit. But to be honest, I never talk about how parents need to role model good online behavior, and the Family Media Plan does not have a section for parents and guardians to commit to changing their own behavior.

It’s hard for me to imagine my teenagers creating media commitments for themselves without asking me to do the same.

There have been no further neighborhood-wide cat emails. I do not know if my email announcing the potluck quelled the venomous cat chat, or if it was just late enough in the day and everyone who had something to say had already said it, or if — as my tech-savvy children assume — someone took me off the email chain. But with the holiday season almost upon us, and the new smartphones and tablets that will make their way into so many of our homes, I hope we, the grown-ups, will not just tell our children how and when to use their gifts, I hope we will show them, too.

Related:

Marjorie S. Rosenthal Twitter Cognoscenti contributor
Marjorie S. Rosenthal is an associate professor of pediatrics at the Yale University School of Medicine.

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