"Bullying" and "cyberbullying" are not legal terms, but umbrella phrases that cover a variety of behaviors. As such, there are a range of uses for the terms. Church leaders must know and understand them, particularly in the context of youth ministry.
According to Paula Burns, an agent for Insurance One Agency who studies bullying and other social media risks, these differing definitions of terms agree on key points. With these in mind, it can be said that bullying can include some or all of these elements:
- Attack or intimidation with the intention to cause fear, distress or harm.
- Physical attacks, such as hitting, punching, or taking property.
- Verbal attacks, such as name calling or teasing.
- Psychological/relational attacks, such spreading rumors and social exclusion.
- The presence of a real or perceived imbalance of power between the bully and the victim.
- Repeated incidents between the attacker and the victim.
According to Burns, cyberbullying is "an aggressive, intentional act carried out by a group or individual using electronic forms of contact repeatedly and over time against a victim who cannot easily defend him or herself."
It can take the form of sending mean, vulgar, or threatening messages and images, posting sensitive or false information about a person, pretending to be someone else in order to make that person look bad, or intentionally excluding someone from an online group.
But church leaders should realize that being the victim of such behaviors carries its own inherent stigma. No one wants to admit to being bullied. According to CJ Malott, student pastor at Fielder Church in Arlington, Texas, middle-schoolers and high-schoolers don't particularly like to use the term "bullying." He observes that "A lot of students ask for counseling about being bullied, but they say they're being ‘picked on,' or ‘made fun of.' They don't use the word ‘bullying' anymore, but that's what it is."
Legally, a church is at risk if it fails to monitor and supervise youth under its direct care. Churches may be at legal risk if they know bullying goes on and yet do not take appropriate action to recognize and respond to such situations.
For more information on keeping your student ministry safe, see the eBook Essential Guide to Youth Ministry Safety.
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