Is summer a break from bullying and cyberbullying?

Decades ago, a student being picked on by a classmate saw June as heralding relief. During the off-school months, targets escaped their daily tribulations.

But today, when so much bullying occurs online or outside of school, a target may know that summer doesn’t mean a true break. The school hallways may be empty, but the Internet buzzes with a newfound energy when the weather is hot. It’s certainly true that many summertime activities attempt to get children to forgo electronics – sometimes even successfully. I’ve also noticed in the field that students are becoming increasingly aware that constant connectivity is probably not healthy.

Despite that, Internet use by children and teens during summer remains heavy. Most elementary-aged children continue to play online games during July and August, and that’s where my research suggests that most elementary cyberbullying occurs. (By adolescence, that trend is reversed: most teens do not bully on electronic games, but in social networking.) Among older children, abandoning connectivity for the summer is also unlikely. It’s anxiety-provoking for pre-teens and teens to disconnect, even when the digital connections expose them to meanness. Of course, summer social problems can also happen in person, for example, during organized athletics and camps, where the adult staff tends to have less training (if any) in bullying and cyberbullying.

For these reasons, parents shouldn’t regard summer as a guaranteed bullying-free time. But more importantly, summer is also a unique opportunity to help your children build resiliency. Studies have now shown that it’s strong relationships that really help children cope successfully with bullying and cyberbullying. I asked targets in a research setting, “what helped you cope when a peer was cruel?” Their most common answers were all about connecting with others – talking, discussing, feeling comfortable and close in their relationships – not about “fixing” the social problem per se. This really makes a lot of sense: even if an adult could stop the bullying (a big “if”), the shattered relationships would remain, painfully, in place. But learning to focus more on solid relationships might really bring some relief.

What does this have to do with summer? Summertime is prime time for family activities and vacations, and the importance of these should never be minimized. During family-only times, your children have a chance to play and enjoy time together, cementing more positive sibling relationships that will really pay off next winter when their sibling helps them cope with some cruel peers. Family-only times also encourage parents to interact with their children in a playful way, instead of only as a caretaker. Play with your children and have fun together. Consider suspending some of the rules – let your children eat junk food now and then when on vacation! By having fun together and bonding, you’ll really help your child build his or her resiliency.