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 stopbullying.gov/resources/facts, 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.

 

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.

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.

Screen Time, Part Two

In last week’s post, we looked at three dangers of excessive exposure to screens:

  1. Content offered on screens is meant to be addictive;
  2. Content offered on screens can be dangerous because it can manipulate the way content consumers think and act; and
  3. Excessive screen use can lead to emotional, social, and mental health problems.

Each of these dangers is particularly problematic for children and adolescents, who lack the self-awareness, self-control, and discernment to protect themselves.

What can parents, guardians, teachers, and other caregivers do to help children understand and control the images and messages they see online? This week, we’ll look at how to help kids understand. In our final post in the series, we’ll look at ways parents and caregivers can take control of the situation.

Understand

Here are some talking points to help your kids understand what they’re being exposed to online.

1. Nothing on electronic media is morally neutral. In other words, kids need to understand that the content to which they expose themselves will do one of two things: it will either make them wise and more godly, or it will lead them away from God and the safety he provides.

The Bible tells us in Psalm 101:3 to avoid even looking at anything that is “worthless,” or that would lead us astray (actually, the entire psalm deals with the topic). The reason? We become like the things we expose our eyes, ears, minds, and hearts to. That’s why the psalmist says in this verse: “I hate the work of those who fall away; it shall not cling to me.” He knows that whatever he sets his eyes on will literally cling to him and either lift him up, or drag him down.

Electronic media is like that, too. Staring at content designed to shock, scare, sexually arouse, anger, or even entertain (yes—too much entertainment is bad for you, too!) will have a subtle effect on the viewer. We wind up thinking the very ways that we’re taught to think in the media we consume. We wind up speaking and acting the ways patterned for us in that media. Help your child understand that he or she is literally being programmed by the things that he or she watches or listens to—and that isn’t always good.

2. Self-control is good. This is a concept that seems to have fallen by the wayside in our modern era. Artificial intelligence (AI) is at work to keep feeding content to us content consumers. When the algorithms determine that we enjoy watching content that has certain tags, it will automatically feed us more, and more, and more. It’s like being at an all-you-can-eat buffet…there’s so much good.

And the reason why it’s so hard to just put the phone down and walk away is that the pleasure centers of our brains have been reconditioned to crave more and more content that we find enjoyable. It literally takes a force of will to close the app or turn off the phone and to focus on something else.

Kids often end up consuming endless hours of AI-curated content because they don’t know how to walk away. They don’t know they are able to exercise self-control. Talk with your kids about the importance of taking control of their own minds and bodies by setting limits on the time they spend on apps and in front of screens. If they sit passively before a screen filling their minds and hearts with content, they’re being shaped by whatever they watch. But they can take responsibility for their own bodies and minds, and get up and walk away. Sometimes, just being told they have the ability to do this can empower a child to make different choices.

3. Your kids have an enemy, who is trying to destroy them. That enemy is Satan, the devil. Satan’s mission is to destroy the fruit and joy of salvation in the lives of all God’s people. He is after your children, and can use media to infiltrate their hearts and minds.

Satan does not tend to tempt us by exposing us to extreme, implausible thoughts or circumstances. Rather, his habit is to put otherwise good and appealing things in front of us and ask us: Why don’t you just go ahead and take it? You know you want it.

He can do that through entertainment, humor, good-sounding music, and even using the words of someone else we might admire or trust to entice us. Friends sharing links to content they might find funny or provocative might provide a vehicle for that temptation. So might AI offering your child a virtually limitless menu of entertainment.

Don’t get me wrong: not everything is a vehicle for temptation. But kids need to be aware of the fact that there is someone at work behind the scenes to expose them to harmful ideas, worldviews, and behaviors. They need to either be wise enough to avoid those traps, or they need a parent, guardian, teacher, or caretaker to steer them away from danger.

In the third and final installment of the series, we’ll look at how parents, teachers, and other caregivers can actually help kids set boundaries or even change behavior regarding screens and media.

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.

Screen Time, Part One

Is excessive exposure to screens (phones, computers, tablets, television) dangerous for children’s physical, emotional, and social health? Many experts say it is.

I’m old enough to have had the experience of a single screen in the house while I was a child and teen: the family TV. I remember sitting, virtually comatose, as I watched an unending parade of TV series reruns from the 1950s and 60s on summer afternoons. And then there were the Warner Brothers cartoons, some of which I can still quote from memory. My mother would tell me to get away from the “boob tube,” as she called it, because it would kill my brain cells. Ah, the good old days.

Certainly today, children and teens have a far wider array of options for entertainment and escape than I did in the 1970s. A young person today has access to more entertainment and social media content than they could possibly process in his or her lifetime.

An Internet services company, PwC, estimates that the amount of data stored on the world’s collective Internet servers will reach 44 zettabytes (ZB) by the end of 2020. (Full disclosure: I was unaware what a zettabyte was prior to researching for this article. If you’re interested, a zettabyte is a little more than one trillion gigabytes.) That 44 ZB of data is comprised of videos, audio files, images, websites, social media, and so on. It’s a veritable overload for the senses.

In addition to the static data already on the web, immense amounts of new content are added to the Internet each second. For example, among top apps used by children and teens, What’s App, the texting app, is most prolific, with 752,314 new messages sent each second. Snapchat users share 34,722 new Snaps each second. Instagram users post 1,099 new photos each second. And YouTube, the world’s largest repository of video, adds 500 minutes of video to its servers each second. The world’s data is projected to grow to 175 ZB by 2025.

That’s a whole lot of content for today’s young people to grow up on. And it doesn’t come without risk. Here are three big dangers for young content consumers:

First, the fact that so much content is available to watch isn’t what makes screens dangerous. Rather, it is the nature of these videos: short, stimulating, and colorful. Such content is meant to be addictive. Each time someone views one of these colorful, dynamic videos, it subtly and permanently alters brain chemistry to desensitize dopamine receptors and to create a dependent pattern (an addiction) to similar content. In essence, the reward centers of the brain are reprogrammed to crave more content. And artificial intelligence (AI) is employed in certain apps to detect user patterns (which videos they like and dislike), and to automatically feed the user more content that they have shown they prefer.

Perhaps the gorilla in the room for young people right now is TikTok, an app dedicated to “short form” (15 seconds or less) mobile videos set to music. I have a sixteen-year-old at home who has used TikTok for over a year now, but I’ve never watched it myself. For the purposes of this article, I invested a few minutes looking at the sample video feed on tiktok.com’s home page. The videos were fast, colorful, creative, entertaining and engaging. Before I realized it, a few minutes had grown into an hour. I must have looked at a couple hundred videos during that time, completely unaware of the passage of time.

I was also completely unaware of what I was exposing myself to. A second danger of excessive screen time is the lack of awareness of the content you’re feeding your brain. What subtle messages, behaviors, and attitudes are part of the content you’re watching? They all work to desensitize the viewer, change his or her own attitudes and preferences, and sometimes, introduce him or her to overtly harmful content and ideas. As a matter of fact, this week TikTok was in the news because they were finding it difficult to trace and take down all of the shared versions of a video originally aired on Facebook (and later picked up and spread by TikTok) which apparently depicted a man’s suicide. Young viewers can be exposed to a lot of scary, harmful, and negatively impactful content in a very short period of time.

A third danger of excessive screen use is that it often leads to secondary emotional, social, and mental health problems. Studies have found a strong correlation between internet addiction and anxiety, stress, and depression. These conditions present themselves not only when the viewer is deprived of additional content that is craved by the chemically-altered brain; they persist even while the viewer is looking at such content. Desensitization of the brain’s dopamine receptors is progressive. Consequently, the viewer develops a tolerance for the level of input he or she experiences, and needs more—or more exciting—input in order to achieve the same feeling of pleasure, relief, or escape that they previously attained.

In our next article to be published this Friday, we’ll discuss ways that parents and guardians can help children understand and control the images and messages they see online.

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.