Tuesday 25 October 2016

There are ways of dealing with online bullying - and it starts with a humble emoji

There are ways of dealing with bullying online, psychologist Dacher Keltner tells us - and it starts with the humble emoji

Ailin Quinlan

Published 28/09/2015 | 02:30

'It was the first clear statement that we shouldn't shy away from our emotions but embrace them. I was really struck by that'. Professor Keltner on the Pixar movie, Inside Out.
'It was the first clear statement that we shouldn't shy away from our emotions but embrace them. I was really struck by that'. Professor Keltner on the Pixar movie, Inside Out.

Bullying has always existed, so, once the cyber world became part of life, it was inevitable that bullies would move online, says emotions expert Professor Dacher Keltner.

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Bullying isn't even a specifically human trait, he points out: "You'll see it in other species where a cluster of creatures will abuse and pick on another creature because it's less powerful.

Dacher Keltner
Dacher Keltner

"What I have found is that humans will basically transpose the same behaviour to social media, so Facebook and the social media platforms will see it; you'll see it on Snapchat and various digital platforms," he explains.

Keltner says research shows that around about one in five 11-year-olds experience some form of bullying. So it comes as no surprise that a new survey by Vodafone shows that one-in-four Irish teenagers are being cyberbullied.

Where all this gets interesting, however, is that research also shows that once people start talking openly about bullying, the incidence of it often starts to fall - and this is where, Dacher explains, digital media can be a real force for good.

"Twenty or 30 years ago, studies showed bullying was at epidemic levels in the US, but now it's in decline, because it's being talked about," says Dacher, an emotions expert who advised director Pete Docter throughout the making of the Pixar hit Inside Out, in which several emotions, personified as characters grapple for control of the mind of a young girl.

Now he has launched the #BeStrong anti-cyberbullying emoji initiative, which involved the creation of a whole suite of 'support emojis' to raise awareness of the necessity to convey compassion, sympathy and support for friends who are being bullied online.

The emojis were chosen by 5,000 teenagers from a wide selection designed by Vodafone and its anti-bullying panel - of which Dacher was a member - as their favourite symbols for compassion and support.

"With the emojis, what we wanted to convey was two things," he explains.

"We know that when you are cyberbullied you feel alone. However if someone offers support, the person being bullied will do better," he says. In fact, nine-in-10 Irish teens surveyed as part of the research said they'd find it easier to cope with cyberbullying with support from friends on social media.

"We also know that one of the most powerful ways of offering support is through touch - hugging, shaking hands."

Hence the clasped hands emoji, he says:

"It's an image of strength and it's a small act of heroism to offer support to someone who has been isolated or bullied."

Keltner believes that teenagers don't know how to offer support to peers, an assertion that is supported by the Vodafone research which shows that about four-in-10 teenagers surveyed admitted that they'd find it difficult to choose the right words to support a friend who was being bullied online. And this is where the new range of emojis comes in.

"A lot of emojis can be limited for communicating emotions. The bystander needs better tools; specific emojis that they can send their friends to show that they are there for them," he says.

In this way digital media can be used to counteract and possibly even defeat this age-old form of emotional torture.

"If teenagers are creating their culture online in this amazing new technology, this is an opportunity to do better than we did in the past," he says.

But digital media, he believes, doesn't just provide new ways of tackling age-old problems like bullying - it also offers teenagers the opportunity to "share more good things," encourage their peers more, and overcome issues like loneliness.

"Adolescence can be a lonely time - in the United States for example, loneliness is one of the central problems for everyone - and new social media can help us be connected.

"One of the things we're learning is about the new ways in which adolescents and young adults are hyper connected, and which can be very good.

"When people feel really connected on Facebook it boosts their happiness and makes them less vulnerable to depression."

This hyper-connectedness can be used to become engaged in a variety of activities:

"It's important for young teenagers to share their opinions about things of consequence in their communities, they can use the new digital technologies to express their feelings.

"Kids will share what matters, very quickly through smartphones, and schools and parents and the church community can take advantage of that.

"What we have to remember," Keltner says, is that "technology does not have control over us - we just need to be thoughtful and proactive and put it to good use."

Good use of digital media often just involves common-sense, says the Berkeley University professor.

"I don't know if there's a right age for children to get a smartphone - my gut says 12 or 13," he says, adding however, that what is important is parents' willingness to put in place guidelines on the good use of such technology.

"There are common-sense rules about not letting children use it after a certain time at night and keeping an eye how long they are on it," he explains.

"What I am hearing is that smartphones can interfere with dinner, conversations and sleep, so you want to make sure there are clear rules at dinner, for example, or for after 9pm," says Keltner.

"For 20 years I've been teaching emotions at Berkeley, and one of the key things we've learned about emotions is that all emotions have a purpose and can be of benefit, when expressed in the right way, our culture has a lot of trouble with that."

Americans in particular want people to be upbeat, he says, "and if someone is struggling with anxiety we don't know what to make of it.

"What Pete was doing with the filming [of Inside Out] was embracing these negative emotions. I was blown away, it was the first clear statement that we shouldn't shy away from our emotions but embrace them. I was really struck by that.

"I got to visit Pixar a few times and share ideas with Pete and it was one of the most gratifying collaborations I have ever been part of. It was really a concrete expression of what I had been teaching.

"The seriousness with which they took the science struck me and I was humbled by their handling of it.

"And, just as with this new initiative, if we can give people great images and words to handle the different things in life we are the better for it."

#BeStrong with these online tips

* Remember that you're not alone: if you're being cyberbullied remember that others have felt this way. Cyberbullying can make you feel isolated, hurt and angry - but remember that these feelings will pass. It's important that you follow the advice below to get the support you need.

* Choose your online friends carefully: Remember that anyone you accept as a friend will be able to see what you have made available on that profile. They may be able to share or screengrab your photos or information and post them elsewhere.

* Make a strong password for all of your accounts: change them regularly and never share these with anyone. Make sure your password includes a combination of upper and lowercase letters, numbers and symbols. This will mean people can't access your account, steal any info, or post harmful comments in your name.

* Check your privacy settings: choose the information you share with people, for example you can set your profile or data to private or only allow certain people to contact you and view particular information. Make sure you never share your address, phone number or email address with anyone online.

* Google your name: to check what private info about you is available online. If somebody types your name into a search engine, what van they find? You may need to check your privacy settings.

* Keep the evidence: and save any cyberbullying texts or conversations you receive.

* Don't respond immediately: if you receive hurtful messages online. Instead tell someone you trust right away such as your parent, teacher, mentor relative, brother or sister - anyone! If you are being cyberbullied they will work with you to sort out the problem.

* Let your child know: that you are aware of bullying, and can have a conversation about it - there may be teachers or a coach that they can reach out to so let them know they are not alone.

* Block the person bullying you: there is always a way to stop the bully contacting you - check out the privacy or security settings of the service you are using to find out how.

* Report it: any cyberbullying you suffer should be reported. Whether it is nasty comments, a text message, online chats or group bullying, it is still bullying and is not okay. Block the person and use the 'report abuse' buttons - all social networks have these.

* Stay positive: Things will get better. Do activities which make you feel happy with people who love and appreciate you.

* Be an upstander: support others experiencing bullying. An upstander is someone who recognises when something is wrong and acts to make it right. When an upstander sees or hears about someone being bullied, they speak up, and do their best to help, protect and support the person.

* Remember: says Keltner, bullying can be very hard to talk about - and it can be embarrassing to discuss, too, but all kids have to do is "I am there for you," and that is a very powerful thing for the victim to know.

Tips from The Diana Award Anti-Bullying Campaign; Vodafone, Dacher Keltner, and TheParentZone

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