Bullying at school still exists, despite many programs and education that have been implemented on this subject. Not that long ago, a child could take solace from their perpetrator when they left the school playground and returned home to the safety and security of their family. 

With the introduction of technology, a child can also escape into the virtual world to temporarily withdraw from being bullied. Here, they can find a group where they feel socially accepted, such as in online gaming communities.

But as a result of technology, bullying can also continue online, within cyberspace. Sometimes, it even starts here. It’s a more subtle, secretive method for degrading, shaming, controlling, and mentally torturing others. And it’s more difficult to uncover, as a parent. Cyber bullying doesn’t leave any physical marks, it leaves its impression on a child’s heart, on their sense of self, on their emotional makeup. Technology has made it easier to bully a child 24/7 while it’s also provided a place for a child to retreat from harassment.

But can we point the finger at technology as the sole blame for an increase in bullying and the mental health issues, in children, that have risen as a result?

I follow Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. I often am more interested in reading the comments than the post because I am both fascinated and appalled by what followers will say when they can hide behind their digital device. And what’s always most shocking to me, is that these bold, nasty, and often cruel comments are made by grown adults! What kind of a culture are we creating for our children? And why are we ineffective at stopping this toxicity?

My youngest son was bullied during the middle school years. This menacing experience had a detrimental effect on his self-esteem. He felt powerless at school and this drove him into the world of multi-player video gaming in the safety of our home. Gaming provided him an arena of temporary acceptance, but it didn’t clear his low self-esteem issues. In fact, his hunger for this online acceptance eventually drove him into gaming addiction. 

In my second book, Cyber Sober; A Caregiver’s Guide to Video Gaming Addiction, I asked my son, during one of our interviews, what could have been done to correct the bullying he had experienced in middle school that initiated his journey of self-doubt?

Here’s an excerpt from our conversation.

“Bullying is a very difficult subject matter to attack. So, to answer the question, you don’t snitch. You don’t tell authority. You don’t tell teachers’; it comes from a place of distrust. And that distrust is mostly in the assumption that if you say something, the issue will not become better. And that’s most often reflected in a world where you tell a teacher, that teacher then speaks to that other child, and either doesn’t punish them, or punishes them but doesn’t follow up afterwards, so once they leave punishment, they just make it worse, or it changes the tune so the bully will find more subtle ways to bully. There’s a whole lot of ways that that power structure fails that enable bullying in the larger environments. So, what, alone can you, as a parent do? Not a lot, because it’s the village that has a problem, not just you.”

It’s sad hearing my son trying to make sense of a situation where he clearly felt he had no control. But there is truth in his answer. He’s absolutely right, it’s the village that has the problem.

Building a strong sense of self with a child needs to start in the home, with adults, and in the very early years of school. And it begins with the teaching of empathy. Children need to feel safe about being unique and individual, no matter where they are.

While listening to a segment, titled The Power of Kindness, on the podcast, WE-Well-Being, hosted by Sophie Gregoire Trudeau, I learned that Canadian teacher, Mary Gordon, started a school program in Ontario in 1996 called Roots of Empathy and then later in 2005, the Seeds of Empathy program for three to five-year olds. This was the first I had heard of it. The purpose of the program is to teach empathy to children to prevent bullying, reduce aggression, increase sharing, caring and inclusion, and promote resilience, well-being and positive mental health.  

I think her project is a remarkable way to help build tolerance and understanding.

The program supports interactive learning with music and movement, art, drama, and discussion which is based on children’s literature. For the first two weeks, a group of 3-to-5- year-olds gather on or around a lavender blanket to have a book read to them and they participate in a Literacy Circle.

During the third week, the program introduces an experiential learning based on family visits, where a 2–4-month-old baby and their parent(s) visit the group for up to half an hour. All the 3-to-5-year-olds, and the staff who work with them, gather around the lavender blanket and they observe the baby. The children are coached to observe the developmental milestones and read the baby’s cues which tell them how the baby is feeling. Over the next eight months, the children will come to understand and respect the baby as an individual with their own unique temperament and feelings. This observation leads the children to better understand their own uniqueness and feelings, and the feelings of others. (“Seeds of Empathy”)

It is programs, such as these that need to be in every school. It is vital that this sort of program be funded and implemented. And it requires a follow-up curriculum in order to serve as a constant reminder for understanding diversity and compassion. And online or virtual empathetic behaviour and ethics need to be on that curriculum list, as well.

Veteran Emergency Room physician, Dr Brian Goldman’s recorded voice in the podcast shared that humans have two conflicting impulses – a desire to connect with others, while also creating a division between us and them. Children have a deep desire for connection, but they don’t always understand differences. They will learn to compartmentalize each other instead of accepting uniqueness. In order to create more empathy and kindness in children, they need to be shown to see another person as an “us” not “them”. Kids don’t always understand or have empathy for a child who may be different. For example, those who are straight versus those who are gay, those who are a part of their culture versus those who have a different culture, those who have the same spiritual belief versus those who believe something different. We need to teach kids that being different is okay and it’s normal. It’s what makes us each unique and interesting. When children have the capacity to empathize, they can see those who are different as the “us”, and they then want to help because they see that the other person could be “them”. (Trudeau, 2020, 00:22:07)

Although I instilled inclusion, sharing, and kindness in my children, it was easy to have their sense of self broken when they appeared to other children as “different”. When there is a lack of empathy in their peer circle at school and children feel they can’t rely on an authority figure to end the bullying, an overwhelming sense of “us versus them” becomes inevitable. I can now see why Jake turned to online video games to find a place of acceptance. The community of gamers became his “us” and the bullies then became his “them”.

I also understand why bullying is also now prevalent in the virtual world. When we don’t teach a child tolerance and understanding for human differences, they will find an outlet to express their disdain. And technology makes it easy to continually bully, to continually perpetuate cruelty in this ignorance and misunderstanding. 

We need to model and teach children empathy from a very early age in order to decrease the risk of bullying. This lack of teaching compassion may be the predominant underlying issue for the increase we are seeing with many mental health conditions and even suicide of children. 

Technology is not going away. Take a stand and speak up against those who are bullying online. Reach out to tech companies and apply pressure to those in charge of social media platforms, requesting they flag and remove all slanderous and cruel comments and posts. We are not helpless, as adults. We can continue to push to make a difference and help those who feel unsafe and vulnerable.

Use parental controls to monitor your child’s activities when they are online, and do not allow electronic devices to be used behind closed doors in bedrooms. It’s an important step in prevention to keep all children’s online use kept in a central area in the home, making supervision of possible bullying much easier for parents. 

Look for children’s programming and/or movies with a theme or lesson in empathy. Watch these films together and have discussions afterwards.

Every child has an opportunity to be educated. Insist that this education includes learning empathy and making funding for more effective programs, such as Seeds of Empathy, a top priority. Write a letter to your government urging this campaign to end bullying.

Let’s create the kind of community where our children can thrive and learn to be more accepting of each other, in both their tangible and virtual worlds.

Works Cited

“Seeds of Empathy.” Roots of Empathy, rootsofempathy.org/seeds-of-empathy. Accessed Sept. 2020.

Trudeau, Sophie, host. “The Power of Kindness.” WE Well-Being Podcast, WE, 31 May 2020, https://www.we.org/en-CA/get-doing/activities-and-resources/wellbeing/we-well-being-podcast/episode-5-the-power-of-kindness