As a bullying counselor, I spend many of my days helping students and teachers handle confrontational behavior — or, as the kids say, drama. But this was a peculiar situation.
It started, as bullying often does, in a school hallway. E says she overhead A talking about her. (Editor's note: Only the girls' first initials are being used to protect their identities, given the sensitivity of the subject.)
E is a teen with special needs. Often, she feels targeted by her peers at schools. She complains of dirty looks, eye rolling and whispering when she walks the halls. This time, she saw A whispering and assumed it was about her.
And E now has a power to hit back — on Facebook. As soon as she got home, she logged on and demanded that her friends unfriend A, choose between the two of them. She teased them for talking to A at school, called her ugly and fat. "She stinks," E wrote, "and she uses her momma to fight her battles." You can only imagine the comments.
More so, E didn't know this, but her Facebook privacy setting was set to public, meaning anyone — including A — could read her posts. In a matter of hours, E ostracized A — E was the cyberbully.
Except, in E's head, she was the victim. She did not think of herself as lying or instigating. And it's hard to say whether she could comprehend the viciousness of her actions. E truly believed that A was after her, that was her reality — through her prism, everything A did was meant to attack.
I found myself in a mediation session with the two girls — they were aggressive and mean and blamed each other. Turns out, the origins of the conflict went months back: E stopped saying hi to A; A assumed E didn't like her anymore and didn't want to initiate a conversation for fear of rejection. A started putting up her guard and sometimes, without realizing it, rolled her eyes when she saw E. This is the drama that snowballed into cyberbullying and caused a lot of emotional harm to both girls.
And here's the thing about cyberbullying: It can unravel into extensive, real-life trouble. I hear this all too often: "You mess with me online, I will mess you up on the bus." It can start with a misunderstood comment, a chatting session misconstrued or an inappropriate post meant as a joke. And for a teen with special needs, words can take on literal meanings, threats be taken at face value, creating an environment that's frightening and debilitating. Combine that with a lack of a grip on online privacy and virtual social skills and you may get a pretty vicious outcome.
Of course, this is not to downplay the blessings of social media. It can open doors to new friendships and social circles that are unattainable in real life. But we, as adults, often give our children access to this virtual world without guidance and boundaries, while counting on them to navigate it with ease and wisdom. We expect too much with little direction.
Would you give car keys to your child without them having a license or taking drivers' education classes? No. Then how can we justify letting them navigate online without proper training or supervision? It's a virtual car crash waiting to happen.
The advice that I give parents with special-needs teens is to discuss, monitor and educate — setting clear rules and staying consistent, even repetitive.
And I know it can be done. Victoria Benson is raising a son with autism. He doesn't really have friends at school and rarely speaks to anyone, but at home, he's got a community of friends through Google Hangouts and YouTube.
On one hand, it's a Wild West, as Victoria puts it. One time, her son received a post that made fun of him in a way that deeply upset the boy — why would a stranger say such things about him? Victoria had to calm him down and explain that sometimes people say things on the Internet that they don't really mean.
Monitoring her son's online activity sometimes borders on a full-time job, Victoria says, but here's the other side: He made a real friend through social media, another teen who is autistic. "Regardless of how much time I need to monitor," Victoria says, "when I hear my son talking to one of his friends online, my heart just melts."
Kortney Peagram is a psychologist and owner of the Chicago-based consulting firm Bulldog Solution. She works with schools in the Midwest to reduce bullying and cyberbullying.