Thursday, 27 October 2016

Cut those bullies down to size

       Think of a bully and you might picture a thick-necked yobo who’d last several rounds with Mohammed Ali in his heyday. But not all bullies use their fists. Truth be told, the typical bully relies on their tongue, using sarcasm, ridicule and insults to make their target feel small.
       They don’t even need to be in the same vicinity to threaten or upset their victims. Mobile phones and social network sites are rife with abusive messages and cruel jokes at other people’s expense – often sent anonymously.
       Age is no object, either. While still at primary school, Rebecca* received a nasty letter, full of lies and innuendo, supposedly sent by a fellow pupil who also received a similar letter, supposedly from Rebecca. Their parents took the letters to school where the form teacher recognised the handwriting as that of another pupil in the same class, who in turn had been pressured into writing it while her ‘friend’, an 8-year-old girl, told her exactly what to say. Cunning, manipulative and designed to cause the maximum distress.
       Gender doesn’t come into it, nor does class; a public school pupil has as much chance of being bullied and harassed as someone attending a local comprehensive. But just because a problem may be unavoidable doesn’t mean it can’t be solved.
       Let’s just examine one or two motives of a potential bully. Some who cause misery may not even mean to hurt their victims, viewing their taunts as simple banter or what passes for humour. This kind of behaviour is common in large families where children may compete to get a rise out of each other or even to gain attention from parents – even negative attention is better than none.
       Some people have been brought up to be plain spoken. The area where I was born can be a particularly challenging place to live for sensitive types, as many people pride themselves, not only on their gritty sense of humour but on being rude and overly free with blunt personal remarks. Whether any malice is intended or not, the best way to handle this situation is to simply laugh or shrug it off. This way, any unpleasantness is deflected, as the perpetrator realises his/her words have no effect. He or she may be testing you out, to ‘see what you’re made of’, and will soon tire of the game if you fail to play along.  On the other hand, trading insults will only make matters worse, like throwing petrol on a fire! Refuse to let the bully enrage you and the fire will just die out. You'll also prove to the bully that you're not influenced by anything they have to say - what he or she really wants is a reaction. Don't give them the satisfaction!  They're the ones who are pathetic, not you!
       Should the bully threaten to get physical, of course, the wisest course is simply to walk away - or run if necessary. And if, but only if, there’s no other way out, then of course you have the right to defend yourself as best you can. Yet, surprisingly, your most powerful weapon in almost any situation is ‘mildness’. Keeping your cool is always the best answer to a bully who will view your self-control as a sign of strength, while a kind word can literally stop them in their tracks. Remember, a bully may be frustrated, insecure and desperately unhappy, and the last thing they expect is for people to be nice to them. 
       Clever bullies are often quite intuitive about their intended victims; always seeking out the people they perceive to be weak, shy and easily intimidated.  That’s why it’s good to have ‘attitude’. People who seem poised, confident and assertive rarely get picked on - they’re more likely to stick up for themselves - so by cultivating a self-assured air you can deflect a lot of adverse attention. Basically, most bullies are cowards; preferring victims whom they feel would never fight back.
       Bear in mind that no one, no one has the right to harass you and make your life a misery. If you receive threats and ridicule on a regular basis, you should talk to your parents and listen to their advice. Other people you can turn to are teachers or counsellors, who are usually trained to deal with problems firmly and discreetly, with no comeback on you. Failing that, there are Helplines you can call, where experts can guide you through your problems.
       Some pupils, particularly girls may face sexual harassment, which is perhaps easier to avoid in advance rather than having to deal with when it arises. For instance, any form of flirting is not advisable, as your ‘admirer’ may get jump to the wrong conclusions. Nor should you hang around with girls who tend to be forward with the opposite sex, as you’ll be viewed in the same light. The way you dress may also be a factor - if you can see down it, up it or through it, then you’re bound to get noticed, for all the wrong reasons! How you dress is often how you get treated!
       Both genders can be targeted and propositioned, in which case a firm, direct and unequivocal ‘No’ should be your determined response. Giggling or simpering, even in embarrassment, can create a false impression. Make it clear from the start that you’re not interested and you’ll save yourself a lot of hassle.
       If, in spite of all objections, someone tries to touch you inappropriately, don’t be afraid to make a scene. Yell at your attacker; tell him not to touch you in that way and chances are he’ll be too embarrassed to continue, especially in front of his mates. Should he persist, walking or running away may be necessary and if that doesn’t work, a smart blow to anyone who grabs you should make your feelings clear!  And, same as with any other bully, you need to tell your parents!
       Remember, you deserve to be treated with respect. Be determined not to give into threats, crumple under ridicule or allow anyone to harass you. Before starting a fresh term at school, write down different scenarios which could apply to you. Then plan how you would deal with a given situation – what you could say, how you should conduct yourself and how to avoid the problem in the first place. Discuss your plans with your parents, ask their opinions and ask them to rehearse with you. That way, you can be prepared. 

How to protect yourself: 
  • Cultivate self-respect and show confidence and poise
  • Refuse to respond to taunts or ridicule
  • Exercise self-control
  • Be firm and direct and make your ‘No’ mean ‘No’
  • Avoid associating with people who court attentions from the opposite sex
  • Don’t wear revealing clothes which send the wrong signals
  • Tell someone – especially parents and guardians

* See also "How to Beat a Bully Without Using Your Fists"[search_id]=8a3fa79a-9b90-414d-b767-08f116828aaf&insight[search_result_index]=0

From Bullied to Brilliant by Karen Clarke

Thursday, 6 October 2016

Social media - avoiding the pitfalls

       It’s some years now since I posted my very first Tweet on Twitter and, following the advice of a best-selling online novelist, managed to get myself suspended on the very first day (must be a record!). The Twitter team thought I was a spammer; me, I put it down to enthusiasm.       

       Since then, I’ve become a little more circumspect and, on the whole, it’s been a positive experience; for me, Twitter works well. 

Proceed with caution

       Like any modern invention, there’s an upside and a downside. The ups are obvious – social networks are brilliant marketing tools, a great way to meet people from hugely diverse backgrounds, to keep in touch with friends, and to find out what’s happening around the world. Linking up can be exciting, refreshing and educational. 

       The downside? Well, one problem has already been mentioned; once logged into the site, it’s extremely hard to log out again, especially if you work from home as I do. When on Twitter, the hours just fly, the next chapter lies unfinished, and the dinner plates are still in the sink. How children with homework get on, I shudder to think. But there are more worrying factors which can affect all of us – and which can apply to virtually any use of the internet.

Loss of privacy

       Twitter has around 500 million followers, while Facebook subscribers total almost 1 billion. Every message sent has the potential to go viral within seconds and we have no control over who has access to personal information. Fraudsters, burglars, cynical marketers and even abusers can exploit such information to our detriment. On a local scale, many a teenager has posted details of a forthcoming party only to be swamped by unwanted guests looking to cause trouble.

       In her book, CyberSafe, Gwenn Schurgin O’Keefe points out that “large websites back up their databases. What we put on cyberspace never truly goes away. We have to consider it permanent because there is likely to be a copy somewhere; to think otherwise is foolish.”

Bad associates

       Young people are particularly vulnerable to online bullying, from schoolmates with a grievance to total strangers, sometimes with tragic consequences; reports of children being driven to despair, self-harm, anorexia and even suicide bear witness to the damage caused by haters and trolls.  Some children have arranged to meet ‘friends’ their own age, only to find the person waiting for them is neither a friend nor a day under 40! And every time they go online, there’s always the danger of inadvertently accessing websites featuring porn or violence. 

       These issues are – at least should be – obvious. But what about more subtle factors, such as:

Loss of reputation

       A recent article compared a person’s reputation with a shiny new car. Suppose you own the latest model with flawless paintwork; you take it for a spin but, due to a momentary lapse in concentration, you crash into a ditch, leaving the vehicle a total write-off?

       That’s what can happen to your reputation. A momentary lapse in discretion, a compromising photograph or a careless remark can quickly dent other people’s opinion of you. Families will forgive, true friends will understand, but what about potential employers? Often, the first thing they do on receiving an application is check out your Facebook account – would  that picture of you mooning or leering drunkenly into the camera mark you out as a suitable candidate? According to Dr B J Fogg, author of Facebook for Parents, the answer would be ‘No’. He’s just one of millions who checks Facebook pages as “part of my due diligence. If I can access an applicant’s Profile and see junky things, then I’m not impressed. I won’t hire that person.” Why? “Because people who work with me need excellent judgment.” 

       Certainly, people tend to be less inhibited on social networks, and that applies to your comments too. What may seem innocuous or hilarious to you may be a big turn-off for others. Bad language, off-colour jokes and insulting remarks may trip easily from your fingers as you type, but are they really impressing anybody? Are they as witty as you think, or simply sad? And if they’re suggestive, you may attract the wrong kind of followers. Remember too that others can post comments on your page. As one 19-year old says: “Sometimes people post comments with bad words or double meanings. Even though you’re not the one who said it, it reflects poorly on you because it’s your page.”

Avoid the pitfalls

       Before signing up for a social network, it’s good to set a few boundaries. Look at the potential dangers, decide how best to avoid them and create rules that will protect you from any fallout. Here are a few suggestions which I try to apply myself: 

1)   Be careful what you post and only do so when sober! If you wouldn’t like your parents to see those photographs or comments, why make them available to total strangers? Or worse – prospective employers! When texting, remember your manners. Try to ensure that every remark is gracious, ‘seasoned with salt’. 
2)   Check your privacy settings, as the default settings on the network site may let more people view your page than you imagine. It’s a good idea to customise your settings so only close friends can access your posts. Even then, you need to watch that you don’t give out more information than intended. 
3)   Should you receive a critical or negative response, don’t retaliate. If the criticism is well-meant, thank the sender for his/her interest. Ignore abusive comments and block them from your page along with any that make you feel uncomfortable. The same goes for dubious would-be followers or ‘friends’. Be selective and never open links from anyone you feel unsure of. Some may be pornographic or violent.
4)   Social websites are constantly buzzing with gossip, rumours and opinions about people in the public eye. Be determined never to write derogatory personal remarks about anyone, famous or not, even if they seem to deserve it – after all, who are we to judge? Failing to observe this rule may, at best make you seem spiteful, and at worst get you sued for libel! 
5)   Remember your details are accessible to millions of people, including some who know you, so guard your privacy. Don’t give out too much personal information such as home address, email address, where you attend school, work or college, when you’re at home, when and where you’re going, when you’re at home, when nobody is at home, your photos, opinions, likes, dislikes and hobbies and innermost thoughts. 

6)   Set limits for the time you spend on social networks and stick to them. Doing this will help you control your online activities instead of letting them control you. And if social networks start to take you over, and you find yourself thinking constantly about your tweets, blogs and profiles, then switch them off. Or simply take a break from them, like these teenagers: 

       “I deactivated my account, and I had heaps of time. I felt free! Recently, I reactivated my account, but I have complete control. I don’t check it for days at a time. Occasionally I even forget about it. If my social networking account becomes a problem again, I’ll just deactivate my account.” 

       “I have taken ‘networking breaks,’ where I deactivate my account for a couple of months and then reactivate it later. I do that whenever I realize that I’ve been spending too much time with it. Now I don’t feel as attached to it as I used to. I’ll use it for a purpose, but then I’m done.”  

      By taking sensible precautions and rationing the time we spend on social network, we can use it with confidence -without filching too much attention from more important activities.

       As for me, I feel quite an old hand now - in fact, it's a source of satisfaction to see some of my (very techie) website designer friends are only just getting started! And, of course, with time, I've become more atuned to potential problems and a lot more careful about whom I follow. 

       My personal  'no nos' include profiles with no tweets; tweets containing sexual references or bad language of any kind; profiles with no pictures or other personal touches; tweets which appear in one's timeline with no message -just a link; people with zillions of followers; direct messages (except for confidential info from a trusted contact); and anyone famous (who rarely write their own tweets!)

       And here's an apology to anyone who has kindly retweeted me but to whom I haven't yet returned the compliment. Some of you are obviously lovely people and I'll always try to RT if I possibly can - especially if you're a writer. However, there are certain things I will not promote, such as erotica or the occult. I also try to remain neutral with regard to race, nationalism and party politics.