Say “No” to Bullying

October is National Bullying Prevention Month.

Jesse paused before walking into the school building. He breathed in deeply and felt a twinge of pain from his ribs, which still ached from the punches he received the day before. Ninth grade wasn’t supposed to be so tough, he thought.

Every day for the last two months, Jesse’s classmates found new ways to torment him. First, it was name-calling and other verbal taunts. Then, it was a series of pranks. For the last week, there had been a series of physical incidents—the worst of which had been yesterday. Things were getting worse for Jesse. He didn’t know how long he could endure it—or how to make it stop. He seriously entertained the thought of simply not going into the school building at all.

Jesse is a victim of bullying. And he isn’t alone. Studies show that one in five American students ages 12-18 experiences bullying[1]. 95% of those students report being bullied at school. And, we should note that bullying is not a problem only in secular schools. Like many other social problems, bullying exists in Christian schools, as well.

And bullying is a problem that has wide-ranging consequences for its victims. Data shows that victims of bullying are known to experience higher incidences of mental health and behavior problems than non-victims. Such outcomes might include depression, anxiety, sleep problems, low self-esteem, and even thoughts of self-harm and suicide. And those outcomes can last beyond adolescence. Into adulthood.

Victims of bullying are also at risk for lower academic achievement, dropping out of school, and social disengagement. The consequences are real. Students who are bullied pay a high price for the selfish and sinful behavior of others. Some of the emotional wounds suffered as the result of bullying last a lifetime.

In elementary and middle schools, I was bullied. I can still clearly recall some of those experiences. My teachers, parents, and school counselor all gave me the same advice: either ignore the bullying, or fight back. The few times I did fight back only succeeded in inflaming the situation, reaffirming my own powerlessness. And for those who have ever been victims of bullying, it is understood that ignoring the problem—either by victims or adults who are aware of the situation—only gives it permission to continue.

While on the surface it might appear that power is at the heart of bullying behavior, the opposite is actually true: fear and insecurity are at its core. Fear and insecurity on the parts of those who become bullies lead them to find security and identity by controlling others. Through humiliating others, they feel strong. Through doing so publicly (which is how bullying most frequently happens), bullies attract other insecure people to themselves. This both affirms the strength of the bully and allows the bully’s followers to live vicariously through his or her displays of power. In reality, though, it’s all an act. Bullies can only mask their own weakness and insecurity through frightening others.

This is why it’s necessary for teachers, parents, youth leaders, and other caring adults to identify when a student they love is being bullied, and to intervene. Only real power can defuse a bully’s bluster and end a cycle that will wind up only hurting innocent victims. How can you tell if a student is being bullied? Here are some things to look for:

  • Students who suddenly seem withdrawn, depressed, or anxious
  • Students who suddenly avoid school, church, or neighborhood venues that might be locations where bullying occurs
  • Students who suddenly stop using social media or their phones altogether
  • Students who have unexplained bodily injuries (bruises, scratches, etc.), torn clothes, or missing property
  • Students whose eating habits suddenly change
  • Students who engage in self-harming behaviors (cutting, eating disorders)

Sometimes, though, there may not be visible signs of bullying. Parents can be proactive in four ways to detect and stop bullying:

  1. Pray for your student, that the Lord would protect him or her from those who would wish to cause harm.
  2. Talk regularly with your student, asking diagnostic questions that might lead to bullying or other hidden problems being exposed. Ask about interactions with friends, about interactions with other peers, about how your student feels about him/herself. Ask him or her what’s currently making them happy and what’s making them sad or fearful.
  3. Watch your student and note how he or she interacts with peers. Can you see any visible or sudden changes? Does she suddenly seem more passive and shut down when with friends? Does he suddenly make excuses not to spend time with others?
  4. Monitor your student’s phone, social media, and app usage. About 37% of all bullying victims have been cyberbullied. Cyberbullying can take several forms: mean and hurtful comments about the victim, rumors about the victim, or threats of violence. Cyberbullying can be either direct (via text or instant messaging) or public (via social media). Cyberbullying is far from harmless, and must be stopped as soon as it is discovered.

What can you do as a parent or other responsible adult if you discover that your student is the victim of bullying?

  1. Pray and ask God for wisdom and discernment to deal with the situation.
  2. Talk with your student and affirm that you will make and keep them safe.
  3. Ask your student to share details with you about the bullying (Who? When? Where? What have they done? How long has it been going on? Who else knows?)
  4. If there has been violence or threats of violence, call the police.
  5. Elevate the situation immediately to other adults who can help shut down the bullying and hold the perpetrators accountable. This may include teachers, school counselors, and administrators if the situation occurs at school; youth leaders or pastors if the situation occurs at church; coaches if it occurs in a sports league. If appropriate, notify the bully’s parents or guardians and hold them responsible to intervene. Adults who know about bullying are responsible to stop the bullying.
  6. Continue talking with your student to determine how they are dealing with the situation and people involved. Determine where they might need additional assistance and interventions.
  7. Leverage the resources you have at your disposal. School counselors can connect your student with other resources, inside and outside of the school. Church leaders, particularly youth leaders, can provide spiritual care, encouragement, and a path toward healing. Counselors, social workers, and other therapists can provide emotional support and identify ways to create a climate of safety in which the student can begin to thrive.

Here are links to some other free resources you might find helpful:

Bullying in our schools and communities is never acceptable, it’s never normal, and it’s never harmless. Bullying winds up hurting us all. Let’s take steps to rein it in, and help students who have become victims to recover and thrive!

[1] Cited under “Bullying Statistics” heading of the webpage, last accessed 10/20/2020. Data was gleaned from studies by the National Center for Education Statistics and Bureau of Justice, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Screen Time, Part Three

Over the course of this three-part series, we’ve been looking at children’s use and over-use of screens and related technologies. In Part One, we looked at the dangers of students misusing screens. In Part Two, we looked at three ways parents and guardians can help students better understand the dangers they face.

Today we come to the third and final installment of the series, where we look at what parents and guardians can do to help students set and maintain helpful boundaries with their screens…and what they can do to help students who struggle with respecting those boundaries.

If you are the parent or guardian of a child or adolescent, you likely have already had to wrestle with the issue of how can I shut down my student’s screen when I think they’ve had enough? Limiting screen use or limiting time spent on particular apps can be a challenge for two reasons. First, as we discussed in the earlier two parts of this series, online content (particularly video content with motion accelerated to faster-than-real-life) can be addictive. Second, looking at screens themselves can be addictive. In other words, establishing and enforcing screen time boundaries and limits can be difficult because our kids are already addicted to their screens and preferred content.

But parents and guardians still need to do their jobs of looking out for their students’ best interests. Those best interests include their health. According to a recent Census Bureau survey cited in Time Magazine, children and teens who consistently spend a lot of time in front of screens (particularly smartphones) may have higher incidence of depressing, anxiety, and suicide than those who spend less time on screens.

What can parents and guardians do to help kids limit their screen time and to use the screen time they do have more wisely?

Here are seven examples of what you can do.

  1. Set an example for your kids. Limit your own use of screen time. Tell your kids why you’re doing this, and then do it consistently.
  2. Use trusted resources to make certain that the apps and other content your kids use is appropriate for them. One good resource is Common Sense Media, which provides information on specific apps, shows, and other content so that you can make informed decisions about what’s best for your child.
  3. Set up and enforce regular screen-free times during your child’s day. Examples of such times might be during meal times, one hour prior to bed, or during school or homework times. On weekends, it might be wise to set a regular two-hour window when your child needs to turn in his or her phone, and stay off of all other screens.
  4. Set up and enforce no-screen areas in your home. Experts encourage children’s bedrooms to be one such area. Another might be bathrooms, or any place with a closed door where your child could spend extended, unmonitored periods of time with a screen.
  5. Use apps to limit the amount of screen time your child has available to them throughout the day. If you use an iOS device, the Screen Time app works well for this. Certain cell service providers, such as Verizon, have apps (like Verizon’s Smart Family) which allow you to shut down any connected device for any period of time. Both of these apps allow parents and guardians to also limit the usage of particular apps.
  6. See if your internet provider allows you to set an internal timer in your Wi-Fi router’s settings so that it will automatically turn off the router during certain periods of the day or night. This is a good back-up plan to make certain that students can’t just go to a Wi-Fi enabled device to get around data restrictions on their phone or tablet. If you can’t configure your router’s settings to turn it off for certain periods of time, use this simple hack: plug your router into a lamp timer, which will turn it on or off during certain times of the day or night.
  7. Use some sort of monitoring software to make certain your child isn’t purposefully or accidentally viewing content that isn’t appropriate for them. Some examples of such software are Mobicip, Net Nanny, Norton Family, and Bark. If you want a no-cost alternative to these paid services, you can configure the parental controls on your devices and router to avoid particular apps, and not allow certain content. Your data or internet provider often provides explanations of how to configure parental controls on your website.

    Whatever you do, explain your plan with your student. To the extent you can, ask them to actively participate with you in creating the limits of your plan. Then, stick to it—even when it’s difficult to do so. In the end, your student will thank you for it.

Tim Geiger (M.Div.) is Executive Director of Children's Jubilee Fund. Born and raised in Philadelphia, Tim has lived in or around the city most of his life. His undergraduate studies done at the Community College of Philadelphia, Tim went on to earn a Master of Divinity Degree from Westminster Theological Seminary. He is ordained as a Teaching Elder in the Presbyterian Church in America. Prior to serving at Children's Jubilee Fund, Tim worked for the Internal Revenue Service, The Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals, and Harvest USA, where he also served as Executive Director and then President from 2012-2019. Tim lives with his wife and daughter just outside of Philadelphia.

Children's Jubilee Fund is a 501(c)(3) organization established in 1997 to provide tuition grants to Christian schools in the Philadelphia metro area that serve underprivileged students. These grants are then awarded by the schools as scholarships to students who meet income and residency guidelines. Each year, Jubilee provides hundreds of thousands of dollars in grants that, in turn, help hundreds of students in Philadelphia, Delaware, Montgomery, and Camden Counties achieve their God-given academic and personal potential. Children's Jubilee Fund is an entirely donor-supported organization.