“Whether it’s body dysmorphia or gender norms, everybody’s putting pressure on us,” 12-year-old Michaela said. “It’s a lot for kids.”
ATLANTA — An Atlanta-based parental support company says the number of kids experiencing bullying is reaching new concerning heights.
The company, Bark, monitors texts, email, YouTube, and 30+ apps and social media platforms for signs of issues like cyberbullying, sexual content, online predators, depression, suicidal ideation, threats of violence, and more.
Bark recently analyzed more than 4.5 billion messages from 2022 and found that 71.2% of tweens and 83.3% of teens experienced bullying.
Students like 9-year-old Madison Blake say social media has amplified the assaults.
“Rumors can spread so easily. It’s like wildfire,” Blake said. “If someone says your clothes are ugly, not many people would know about it. But if someone said that on social media, then that post or video can get multiple views and even if you delete it, it doesn’t go away.”
Blake said certain social media features can spread the bullying to thousands, even millions, of strangers online.
“Now on TikTok, there’s something called repost, and that person can put it on their own page,” she said. “It makes it even worse for the person being bullied.”
Michaela Meyers, 12, said most of the bullying she’s seen in 7th grade has happened online.
“It’s gone from, ‘Hey, can we not talk about this?’ to name calling, to threats, to swearing and it can happen like that in a matter of minutes,” she said. “It makes me sick to my stomach.”
Both girls said the digitally curated idea of perfection has trickled down to pressures at school.
“You have to wear this, or else you’re not cool, your body has to do this, otherwise you’re not cool,” Meyers said. “Whether it’s body dysmorphia or making you self-conscious and feel negative towards yourself or gender norms. Everyone’s just putting pressure on us. It’s a lot for kids.”
Tessa Stuckey, a licensed counselor and mom of four, who specializes in issues facing the youth of today, says the problem is more prevalent than most parents realize.
“I really think any kid who is on any platform online, there’s a 100% chance they are going to hear things, see things and be told things that are either inappropriate or hurtful,” she said. “Through the years, it started getting younger and younger and younger. And I now work with eight and nine-year-olds struggling with these really dark, scary thoughts.”
Stuckey said the concern goes beyond hurt feelings.
“We’re also seeing a rise in diagnoses like ADHD, autism, Tourette syndrome, due to an overuse of screens and the content that they are seeing,” she said.
Both Blake and Myers agree the app they’ve seen the most bullying on is Instagram.
“TikTok and Youtube have comments but there’s a filter so you can’t see or say really mean stuff,” Blake said. “But on Instagram, people just don’t care.”
Blake, who is in a school program called No Place for Hate, said she’s learned how bullying can be a vicious cycle.
“Let’s say some person is getting bullied, that person might go bully someone else, and on and on and on,” she said. “But if you like how you look and if you love yourself, it does not matter what other people think. It does matter what you think.”
Meyers said her school has also held presentations and open conversations about the psychology of bullies.
“They just want a reaction,” she said. “Sometimes it’s because they don’t have enough attention from their parents. They just want attention. But the best thing to do, really, is to just ignore them until it goes away.”
Stuckey said because children might not open up about being bullied, it’s important for parents to take note of changes in behavior.
“It’s really hard because sometimes it’s like, ‘Is this being a teenager or is this something deeper than that?'” she said. “They snap (at) you, they roll their eyes, and you can easily be like, ‘Excuse me, no, ma’am.’ Or you can say, ‘Hey, you’ve been seeming a little off lately. Is something going on that you want to talk about?’”
She added it’s also important to address it if you discover your child is the one being a bully.
“Have a lot of conversations about how your words matter, that they can be hurtful and that you don’t know what that other person is going through in that moment and that they can take it in a really bad way,” she said. “To where is that hurt coming from? What’s going on with you? We need to figure out why you’re hurting so that you don’t spread that hurt elsewhere.”
Stuckey said she often recommends apps like Bark to parents, to balance protection and privacy.
“The privacy aspect is having thoughts and moments to yourself or with your friends that is within your circle as long as it’s safe,” she said. “The secrecy part is the thing that could be very, very, very harmful.”
Stuckey recommends starting off with phones that don’t have social media access and gradually introducing those apps with time limits.
“There’s phones that only call and texts, there are phones that only call and text and allow you to download a couple of educational apps,” she said. “When they’re ready to have social media, to allow them to just have a little bit of time starting off. With the mindless scrolling, that’s where you’re going to get those body image issues, the FOMO, the pressure to be perfect.”
Meyers said she hopes parents take time to really empathize with what kids might be dealing with.
“There’s all this pressure on us to wear the right thing and say the right thing and feel the right thing, but ‘What is the right thing?'” she said. “We’re 12 years old. We’re not going to be perfect.”