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Cyberbullying: Camp’s Role in Helping Girls Disengage from an Online World
Author Rachel Simmons spoke with ACA about aspects of cyberbullying among girls and camp’s role in helping kids disengage from an online world where they must always be “on.” Recently, Simmons revised and updated her New York Times bestselling Odd Girl Out: The Hidden Culture of Aggression in Girls with four new chapters that include fresh, innovative strategies to help girls navigate the online world. Simmons is co-founder and director of programs at the Girls Leadership Institute Summer Camp — which strives to instill confidence and resiliency in girls while helping them make lifelong friends.
Q: Why did you make the updates to Odd Girl Out?
A: It’s impossible to talk about girls anymore without talking about the role of social media in their lives. Social media has become ubiquitous and not only something that connects girls, but something they use to sustain relationships. When I first wrote Odd Girl Out, there wasn’t texting or Facebook, so it was a different time. And social media has become a powerful weapon that really needed to be talked about in the book.
Q: Is social media a weapon that girls use more than boys?
A: Girls tend to be more involved in gossiping online than boys, and they are actually more involved in both cyberbullying and being cyberbullied. I think this is because girls tend to be more social than boys. They talk more, and they’re more interested in spending their time talking — which can invariably open girls up to situations where conflict can flare up into a bullying scenario.
Q: So, is cyberbullying just the next iteration of relational aggression? Is technology making it worse?
A: Relational aggression, as you may know, is the use of friendship as a weapon. It’s one of many ways that girls can be mean to each other. They can threaten not to be someone’s friend or turn peers against another person. Giving the silent treatment is an example of relational aggression.
Social media can certainly give girls new avenues to behave this way. I don’t know that technology makes relational aggression worse — I think it just gives girls more ways of doing it. So in other words, you can give someone the silent treatment online, whereas you used to only be able to do it in person. I wouldn’t say it’s the next “version” of relational aggression. Social media typically amplifies existing dynamics and existing feelings; it doesn’t often create brand new situations.
Q: Can you tell if a girl is being bullied online?
A: You really can’t tell unless you know a girl really well, and you know that she’s usually constantly online, but now she suddenly isn’t anymore. That’s probably the only way you’d actually know by looking at her. But I think that’s one of the insidious aspects of this behavior — it’s so difficult to see or to know if a girl is being cyberbullied. And when girls don’t talk about what’s happening, we can’t know. Much of what girls are doing online is away from parents’ eyes.
Q: Is there anything that camp staff could do to help prevent cyberbullying?
At my camp, we don’t allow social media. And that’s very intentional. We don’t allow girls to carry cell phones with them. We give them their phones back during designated periods at camp, but these are very rare periods. And we do that because we think it’s important for girls to be at camp and not use their devices to check out of the experience.
The other thing that often happens with girls is that, when they hang out with their friends now, it’s very normal for their friends to be texting other people while they’re hanging out. Most girls really struggle with that — as anybody would — because it’s just such rude behavior.
I would imagine that most summer camps don’t allow cell phones and social media. But if I were advising someone at a camp who was dealing with a cyberbullying situation, I would certainly recommend that the staff person talk to the girls involved, temporarily confiscate the devices, talk to the parents, and make sure that there is some type of policy in place that communicates to the kids what the expectations are for ethical behavior.
But I really want to be clear — I don’t think summer camp is the place for social media. I think it sort of defeats the purpose of summer camp, which is to go somewhere unusual, different, and distinct from your other world.
Q: So in some ways, summer camp is just as important as ever — giving kids a chance to get away from being plugged in to technology.
A: That’s right. What we want is for kids to have a chance to be kids and be comfortable exploring new territory without having to worry about responding to texts. It’s really hard for them to do that when they constantly have to be “on.”
It’s important to understand that all of this being online and being connected is like social “work” that kids have to do — being on all the time and being connected all the time is exhausting for a lot of them. Summer camp is the opposite of that — kids have a chance to get away from the “work,” have fun, and interact with friends face-to-face.
Q: What advice should camp directors give to parents with children who are experiencing cyberbullying at home?
A: If a child is being cyberbullied, it’s important to “stop, block, and report.” The child who is being bullied should immediately stop engaging with the cyberbully, and then block and report the cyberbully. Parents should remain calm — an alarmist response only upsets the child further, and it might even make him or her think twice about telling the parent if something happens in the future. Also, the parent should document everything. Save texts, print messages, and take screenshots from pages on the Web. Collect evidence to make your case with the school, law enforcement, or another family.
Parents can also be informed of helpful mitigation techniques to stop cyberbullying before it starts. They can talk to their child about safe, ethical, and responsible use of social media — just as they have taught their children to be kind and respectful to others in the “real world,” they must also be clear about those expectations in the digital universe. Parents should set limits on social media use, even if this makes their children insist they are “mean.” Children should be advised to never share their passwords, even with their closest friends. They should understand that there is no such thing as privacy online, and that once something is electronic, it can be shared endlessly — even if a friend promises to keep it secret. Finally, parents should be sure their children know not to fight with their friends online — fighting online gets messy quickly, and technology is never a substitute for real, honest communication.