While we all strive to stay healthy and positive during this pandemic, let’s not kid ourselves: COVID-19 has us all on edge. We’re worried about our physical health and that of our loved ones and we’re struggling to grasp what life will be like when this is all over. The fear, uncertainty and isolation is taking a toll on our mental health.
It’s also manifesting itself in ways that are detrimental to others and unfortunately do not showcase our better selves. This particular story about the rise of bullying against patients and healthcare workers in Japan struck me as a sad commentary on human behavior – that in the absence of information and the presence of anxiety, we look to blame and even harm others for the situation we are in. In the U.S. there were also reports of people of Asian descent being harassed (both in-person and online) simply because the virus is believed to have originated in China. And we’re seeing conflict across our nation as people take sides between opening up our country again so people can go back to work and earn an income and waiting it out to prevent a potential bigger wave of outbreaks. We thankfully still see and hear many stories of heroism, kindness and generosity, but we can also see that civility has suffered a blow at the hands of COVID-19.
In addition, we’ve been in lock down for a while. Our homes have transformed into workplaces, classrooms, gyms, movie theatres, and more in addition to a place of refuge. Consequently, hibernation has made the internet our lifeline to the outside world. Parents have now had to decide between allowing their kids to stay connected to friends and family on apps, some of which they’ve never used before, or limiting their kids’ screentime at the risk of isolating them from much needed social connections. Many, like me, have opted for the former despite the accompanying guilt and inherent risks. Better our kids to have access to connections, whatever they maybe, than suffer from boredom or loneliness.
One of those risks, for ourselves and for our kids, is bullying. In an environment of heightened uncertainty and anxiety, and much of the world online right now, our kids have become increasingly open to the risk of being victims of, witnesses to, or participants in bullying or unkindness. While there is a lot we can’t control right now, we can take steps to minimize online negativity and encourage kids to show compassion towards others and themselves.
- Respect others. The same rules apply now as they did before the pandemic – treat others the way you want to be treated. Let kindness always be your guide. If something upsets you, pause – don’t instantaneously react. Help kids learn how to pause before replying, sharing, or doing anything rash. It’s also a good moment to remind kids that things we post online are never really private. While we may use privacy settings, the apps and sites we use still have rules for behavior and have access to what we’re posting. Always behave online as if the world can see it.
- Respect others’ rules. Some kids might not be allowed to use certain apps or be permitted to use them at the same times as others. Every family has their own rules and values, and kids should not use this against others. Remind kids to think how they would feel if the situation were reversed and they were the one unable to participate in the online activity.
- Take action. If someone is being unkind to your child or someone they know, you can:
- Ignore them. Turn your attention to someone or something else.
- Agree to disagree. Different opinions are ok.
- Block or mute them on the app, if available.
- Report them (many apps allow you to report a specific post, person or group). For example, the Cyberbullying Research Center has a comprehensive, up-to-date list of where to report.
- Support others who are being hurt. Say something kind and encourage them to ignore, block or report.
- Spread kindness. Check-in on someone, give them a compliment, or tell them you miss them. If we all did this, the internet could become a more positive place for everyone.
- Be kind to yourself. Self-care includes breaking from the glowing screens of devices.
- Encourage kids to unplug for a while.
- Remind kids that their value is not equal to the number of likes or follows or comments they receive on their own posts.
- Help kids become resilient. This is an important skill that kids can develop so that someone else’s unkindness does not have to knock them down. The Cyberbullying Research Center has great advice on how to do this with their ABC method. This is a simple framework to help kids to reframe the Advertisty (A), their Belief (B) about why it happened, and the Consequence (C) of it. A friend who does not respond to their text may not be mad at them, and they don’t need to be sad about it. They could instead consider that their friend is busy with family and can choose to reach out to them again later.
- Consider books and movies as another way to help teach empathy and resilience.
- Be prepared. Hopefully your child will never encounter bullying, but consider thinking through how you would respond if you ever needed to. What would you do if they were bullied? What would you do if they bullied someone else? Here’s a great conversation guide you can use with your kids from the Cyberbullying Research Center.
These are not normal times. The world has in fact changed forever. But one thing that remains is the importance of how we treat others and ourselves, and how we teach ours kids to act and react even in difficult times. This pandemic will one day be behind us. Let’s use it as a time to strengthen both our physical and digital immunity, and to model great digital citizenship for our kids.
Lynette Owens is Vice President of Global Consumer Education & Marketing at Trend Micro and Founder of the Internet Safety for Kids and Families program. With 25+ years in the tech industry, Lynette speaks and blogs regularly on how to help kids become great digital citizens. She works with communities and 1:1 school districts across the U.S. and around the world to support online safety, digital and media literacy and digital citizenship education. She is a board member of the National Association for Media Literacy Education, an advisory committee member of the Digital Wellness Lab, and serves on the advisory boards of INHOPE and U.S. Safer Internet Day.
Follow her on Twitter @lynettetowens.