In the last year, I wrote a best selling book, gave a TEDx Talk, started an international online kindness movement, and spoke to groups so small and so intimate that we could sit around a coffee table, knees touching, and to groups so big that my heart is seriously beating so much right now thinking about them.
I taught each of these kinds of groups the same things: how to teach our kids and our students to be balanced, safe, wise, and kind online, and I've taught parents and teachers all around the world to do the exact same things via social media and my online courses.
This movement wasn't an accident—it was designed to be.
Everything that I did for this movement was more planned and purposeful than anything I have ever done before. The stakes are so high for this topic—kids, social media, and cyber bullying have reached a point where something absolutely has to change.
And when it hit so, so very close to home, I knew that I had to do something.
I have worked nonstop to spread the word that anti bullying rallies and events just aren't enough and aren't making the difference that we want them to. That it's time for something radically different. Something freshly squeezed. Something that sees the line that has been drawn in the sand about the way that we treat each other online, and steps right over it to draw a new one.
In this article, I am going to:
- Peel back the curtain on my cyber bullying story
- Reveal how being cyber bullied can impact someone
- Explain what you can do to help a child who has been cyber bullied (Note: This information works for someone who has bullied in person as well.)
Let's dig in.
Even though it takes a complete 180 degree turn from everything else that is out there about bullying "prevention," it is not an accident that my pro-kindness movement has spread.
There's a reason for that.
A lot of people like to talk about the anti bullying efforts that they are a part of, but they tend to clam up when you ask them about the impact that these have.
Are kids being kind to each other?
Are bullying and suicide attempt rates down and friendship and compassion rates up?
How long does it take to see an impact?
What's hard, doesn't work, and still needs to be changed?
I'm revealing the layer beneath THESE things today because I think it's important to be transparent and to show you what REALLY goes on when anti bullying movements are shallow and what it really looks and feels like when you are the one beneath that surface.
One thing I've noticed in my time studying kids and social media is how different people think that the impact of online cruelty, slights, and cyber bullying looks, sounds, and feels like compared to the reality.
The reality is that what works to better a situation for one kid, might not work for another.
Some parents aren't ready to have these discussions with their kids yet and many kids are still maneuvering online largely unmonitored and untaught.
Many teachers haven't been trained in what they need to teach their kids about online safety, wisdom, and kindness—or even that they should be teaching these things.
And kids and families who have been stung by cyber bullying feel these effects for forever and many still go unnoticed and unhealed.
So today I'm going to surprise you with some facts, maybe burst your bubble a little bit about what impact one day, one week, and even one month anti bullying events have (and don't have), and hopefully give you some insight as to what does work and, perhaps more importantly, what definitely doesn't.
I started this movement because I was cyber bullied.
The reason that I am so rawly passionate about this topic is because I have been there. And it is truly the bottom of the (emotional) barrel. Two years ago I wrote an article about marriage, and the comments that came in on it were about my weight. I was devastated. I was shocked and surprised, of course I was, but mostly, I was hurt.
I kept going back to read the comments. My husband, Jason, kept telling me to stop, but you know what they say about not being able to look away from accidents? It was like that.
Looking back on it now, I really and truly think that I was looking for two things when I went back to read the comments over and over (and over) again:
- I wanted to see if anyone would stand up for me and tell those commenters that they were wrong or rude or out of line.
- And I wanted to see if the site that my article was on would step in, not allow something like this to happen on their time and their page, and delete the comments.
Neither of these two things happened.
I only showed my husband the comments. Because not only was I hurt, but I was also embarrassed and ashamed that this is what people (lots of people) thought when they saw me.
Because of this, I took a break from the things and the people that made my world good and so I was also alone and isolated and didn't have the buffers and soft landings that I needed to be able to bounce back from this experience.
I cried so much during that time.
And even though I'm an adult and even though I'm so very lucky to have Jason's support, it took me months to bounce back from this and to claw my way out of this depression.
And they haven't known themselves long enough to know what it is that they personally need to be able to claw their way out. This is why so many of our kids never come back from bullying experiences, this is why suicide attempt rates, anxiety, and depression are high for bullying victims.
When I did finally make my way out of my depression, months later, I wrote a second article. In that article I said two things:
- Let's not talk about other peoples' bodies.
- And let's all be a lot kinder to each other online.
That article went viral. It was featured in places such as Inside Edition, TIME.com, FOX News, Upworthy, and more. But this all started with the TODAY show.
A producer there tweeted me asking if I was okay with them telling my story and confirming how to pronounce my name! (It's guh-leet, by the way.)
I saw the tweet while I was at an event at my kids' school. I showed her tweet to Jason saying, "Well this has to be a joke." But it wasn't. A few days later, my friends on the west coast were tagging me on Facebook and Twitter saying that they saw my story on TV.
A few hours later, while I was watching the segment with Jason and our kids, I was feeling so nervous. The producer hadn't told me how my story would be presented, how I would be presented.
But the segment was truly well done and shed a light on something that I have heard over and over again during my work in this movement: fat shaming doesn't work. Many people say things like they're worried about our health and so it's okay that they're commenting about people, about me, being overweight.
I'm all for people making up their own minds about what's okay for them and not for others. But in this case, I think this is a universal truth:
Unless you're a health professional and have been asked for help, don't talk about other peoples' bodies. People feeling like they have a right to decide and talk about what they deem is wrong with others is a big part of the problem.
Understanding this was a huge turning point for me and shaped my movement because once I was victim blamed—I put my picture online so I was inviting comments; I was fat so I was inviting fat shaming—I realized that this is one reason why traditional anti bullying movements don't work.
They focus on blaming the people who are being bullied, telling them to change and to be more "bully proof"—less fat, less thin, less rich, less poor, less feminine, less masculine, and so on—instead of focusing on the real problem which is that people think that they can define what's good and bad about others and that it's okay to be cruel; that some people, if they somehow don't fit into others' expectations, deserve to be treated badly, and (most importantly) that those expectations hold value and truth to them.
When I say people here, I don't just mean kids. In fact, kids sometimes know better. I mean adults.
We all carry so much baggage with us. Our own stories and experiences from when we were growing up shape what we think is okay online and off. And it is often parents and teachers—the adults in our kids' lives—who inadvertently make it okay for these things to happen.
My bullies were adults.
They were somebody's son, somebody else's sister, someone else's co-worker. And they all thought that making fun of my weight, calling me a heifer, was okay.
NOTE: My whole story can be told via 3 articles—The first one for the Huffington Post; the second one for xoJane; and a third one that I wrote for Buzzfeed. I put all 3 of these articles together. If you'd like to read them, click the button below.
This is what kids think and feel, too, when they've been hurt.
Their instincts are to both burrow and to bury the experience so that no one else will know what has happened. Self victim blaming and silencing is rampant.
But the act of speaking up is vital. Here's why.
As a result of writing that second article, standing up for myself, and letting my story be heard, I saw a lot of goodness. So many people then stepped up to say that they believe in online kindness as well, that they are disgusted by and sick of how we have all come to expect online interactions to be.
If I hadn't spoken up, I would have made the mistake of assuming that I was alone, and continued to feel lonely and as if I had brought the bullying on myself.
Seeing this goodness in the world was vital for me for another reason as well.
I had been so hurt and had felt so alone that the kindness that I was shown was another turning point for me: it gave me hope.
When I speak to parents and teachers today, this is the message that I most hope that they leave with. When someone is bullied, they lose all of this and it is our job to help them get it back.
The advice that I share with them is this:
Never tell a kid to "buck up" or that they're "too sensitive" and should "get over it." Remember how hard it was for me, and they are so very young and don't know themselves well enough to know exactly how to do this. When we say these things, what they hear is that there is something wrong with them and their feelings.
2. Let them sit with their hurt and sadness, and if they'll let you, sit with them.
This one is really important because I think so often we want to fix things for our kids that we brush away their very real and very big emotions. This doesn't help. In all the time that I spent sad and depressed, my husband didn't once tell me to "get over it." He allowed me the space to feel hurt.
3. When they are ready to speak up, encourage them to do so.
I think so often we are afraid to make waves, hurt feelings, or be embarrassed. But it is in this speaking up that we reclaim our hope and it is only when we speak up that others can come forward and be supportive. I did not start to truly feel better until I wrote, published, and shared that second article. This step is vital for healing.
4. Remember that healing is a really long process.
This one is really important, too, and can be hard to understand. For parents out there, do you remember having all of the visitors, meals, and check ups in the first few weeks of new parenting? And then when things got really hard, there was no one around? And for anyone who has experienced loss, do you remember the same thing happening? All the casseroles on the doorstep, and then nothing. Healing from bullying works in this way, too. Be gentle with someone as they are doing the hard work of working through this and continue to make your presence and support so, so very obvious. A kind word, a simple text, an invitation to spend time together can all serve as turning points.
5. This is going to be the hardest one to swallow: People who have been bullied are forever changed.
Some of these changes are for the better, bullied people may become advocates or more thoughtful people themselves. But the trust issues and wall building that come from being hurt by bullying are very, very real. Accept these changes, meet your person where they are, without comments about how they've changed. They already know.
I was able to distill EXACTLY what I do to break down my bullying-induced emotional walls. It is a simple 3-step plan and it is truly the only thing that works for me.
Note: Click the button below to get this checklist if you or anyone you know has been hurt by bullying.
So as you can tell, this all requires a long term commitment and a real, solid action plan.
None of this can be implemented with one assembly or even a month of kindness or the sharing of an article or a theory about how to help.
It's about teaching our kids to not be the ones who are cruel. And it's about holding ourselves and each other to this same standard.
It's about committing to the uncomfortable conversation and the hard work. And then engaging in both in short, direct, and repeated spurts.
My own hard work came in the form of writing my book and giving my TEDx Talk. It's why I wrote my courses. It's why I keep telling my story. And writing these blogs. And reliving those comments.
This isn't possible overnight or alone.
This is why instead of offering you watered down advice, tip-of-the-iceberg regurgitated lists, and endless theories about how someone who is cyber bullied might feel and what might help, I choose to step into this.
To tell my story. To dig deep to the time when my emotions were so ugly and so raw and so hurt. And to zoom way out and inspect what helped, how I pulled myself out of this, and how I ended up in a better place.
Because this is what our kids deserve. It's time. Let's do it.
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AUTHOR: GALIT BREEN
Hi, I'm Galit. Best selling author, TEDx speaker, parent educator, researcher, mom. I'm going to help you raise and teach your digital kids. I've been teaching and working in social media for 8+ years. If you are so over vague, surface level online safety advice and are ready to actually teach your kids and students what they need to know to make an impact + raise a leader, we're going to get along just fine. Learn more about me here.