With kids of all ages tethered to devices all day long, if your child is struggling socially, there’s a good chance it’s not just face-to-face interactions at school or during extracurriculars contributing to their woes. It likely won’t shock you that cyberbullying is on the rise, but keeping up with the many ways kids can bully each other in the digital ethers is certainly no picnic for parents.
For instance, there’s the group chat. “In the decade since Apple introduced group chat capabilities to iPhone users, the group chat has become an intricate social tool that is able to cement or decimate friendships and plummet or improve social standing,” writes Fortesa Latifi for The Washington Post. “Nowhere are these possibilities more present than the group chats of teenagers.”
Increasingly, parents are taking to chat forums and Facebook pages to reveal their kids are caught in the crossfire of these sometimes problematic social conversations. That’s not surprising, says Jillian Amodio, a social worker, author, and the founder of Moms For Mental Health — group chats can serve as a major breeding ground for hurtful, exclusionary behaviors, she tells Scary Mommy.
In fact, Amodio notes, the very nature of group chats makes it maddeningly easy for kids to mistreat their peers.
FaceTime vs. Face Time
“Unfortunately, it is often easier for bullying to occur in a group setting where people can metaphorically ‘hide’ behind others or receive validation and encouragement that might embolden them to behave in ways that they might not otherwise behave in when on their own,” she says.
“Bullying or inappropriate or unkind behaviors in group chats might consist of microaggressions such as saying things in a ‘joking’ manner that are rude, unkind, or hurtful, as well as posting derogatory or inflammatory memes, photos, and other content. Bullying can also be more outright or overt: Sharing embarrassing photos or screenshots to a group, sharing something someone else stated in confidence, name-calling, and behaviors that purposefully strive to ostracize or isolate someone else. A lot of triangulation can occur in group chats where people might use others to create or maintain conflict.”
Kids can even be “iced” out of a group chat as group chats spawn more exclusive group chats, which can, in turn, leave a child out of social gatherings without them even realizing they’ve been excluded. (Is your head spinning? Same.) But how, exactly, are group chats different from other forms of cyberbullying?
“Text messages and other forms of digital/written communication already pose the unique challenge of making it more difficult to read into tone, context, and overall meaning,” explains Amodio.
“In a group format, we are now trying to read and/or convey tone, meaning, intent, and context along with others, all of whom likely have different personalities and different ways of communicating. This can lead to confusion and misunderstandings. People also tend to feed off of each other, especially in the teen years, where peer relationships are the highlight of their existence. Wanting to fit in, be part of the group, and be validated by others can often lead to following along with behaviors that might not be kind or appropriate.”
There is also sometimes an assumption of “privacy” that comes with group chats — an “Oh, it’s just among friends” mindset, says Amodio, “which can breed a false sense of security that people won’t find out what is being said.”
She adds, “In reality, anything put in writing should be treated as though it can be seen by everyone… because, often, it can. Parents may also not check group chats as much, especially if they are deleted or on hidden apps, so youth might have this added feeling of security. It can be easy to fall into a false sense of security, but it is important to think about the impact of our words and actions, regardless of the platform on which they are taking place.”
How to Help
If you suspect your child is being cyberbullied via group chat (or if they tell you they are), how can you help them through it? First and foremost, “validate their emotions and their feelings,” says Amodio. Don’t dismiss or make jokes, even if it doesn’t seem like a big deal to you on the surface. And definitely don’t hop right into defensive mama bear mode before gathering all the facts.
“Ensure their safety and assess for any risks” with regards to self-harm or potential harm by others. If their safety is in jeopardy, you’ll want to reach out to a therapist who can help you best navigate the situation.
If you don’t feel they are in any physical danger, Amodio says, “follow their lead. Do they want your help, or do they just want you to listen? If they want someone else to talk things through with, consider getting them in to see a mental health professional.
While this might be difficult, have a conversation with your child about whether or not the platforms and social media sites they are using to communicate are helpful or hurtful to their overall well-being, and consider making changes,” such as limiting their time on specific apps or their devices in general.
On the flip side, what should you do if you discover that your child is the one doing the bullying?
“No one wants to hear that their child is being cruel to others, but it is important to step in and figure out why this is happening,” says Amodio. The key here is to try to uncover the catalyst.
“All behavior is a form of communication, so what is your child trying to communicate with this type of behavior? It is then important to have a discussion with the child about the impact of their behavior and take steps to change and extinguish the behavior. This may involve restrictions on devices, or finding ways to fix the harm that has been caused. Part of having access to technology is understanding how to use it safely, and if a child cannot use technology safely, just like with any other tool, restrictions on use should be put in place to ensure their safety and the safety of others. You also might want to consider getting your child into therapy to understand the roots of their behaviors and how to change them.”