When kids exclude their peers from group chats and messages, is that bullying? | Mint – mint | Team Cansler

Exclusion can lead to hurt feelings, even when there is no malicious intent behind it. But educators, pediatricians and researchers say online exclusion can be overt, particularly in group texts or chats on any platform teens use to communicate and make plans, be it Apple’s iMessage, Snapchat, Instagram — even Zoom.

These experts say they’ve seen more of it since the pandemic as children’s lives have shifted more and more online. Digital exclusion can be more insidious than overt forms of bullying, which involve teasing and threats, they say.

“Instead of sending a mean message, teenagers are now excluding people, in part by creating a side-by-side group chat to talk about a person without that person being in it,” says John Kalapos. He’s an assistant principal at Buxton, a small boarding school in Massachusetts that I profiled for its recent smartphone ban. Part of the reason for the ban was this specific behavior, he adds.

“It creates power dynamics that are physically invisible but socially effective,” says Mr. Kalapos.

Schools have made anti-bullying campaigns a priority, so most children now understand what constitutes bullying. But online exclusion is harder to spot, call out and punish, and victims often feel ashamed of it, experts say.

Being locked out of a text chain or group chat can keep kids out of online conversations that help cement social bonds. Parents who want to help may not even know about the group discussions or understand who they are missing. And missing chats can lead to personal exclusion, because that’s where children are now making plans.

No child – or adult – will be locked in all the time. But if someone is being isolated on purpose, families can take steps to address it. (More on that below.)

‘Am I not good enough?’

Joseph Olkha, a 16-year-old from Los Angeles, says he was kept out of group chats. He remembers hearing friends talking about how much fun they had playing paintball over the weekend and realizing he hadn’t been invited. Sometimes he would see social media posts from parties he didn’t know about.

Joseph says he has also been discouraged from playing video games with friends. If he sent them a message about joining a game, he was ignored.

“Is there something wrong with me socially? Am I not good enough? Am I not normal?” he recalls questioningly.

Joseph says the exclusion has affected his self-esteem. He says he knows he can be socially awkward and even nerdy, and that other kids his age are better at communicating online. “People told me I was a dry texter, that I seemed disinterested when I texted,” he says.

Joseph, noting that he’s always found it easier to talk to older teens and adults than to his peers, decided he’d had enough of high school. He dropped out of college, enrolled in a community college, and hopes to transfer to a four-year university in the fall of 2024.

Although he’s hurt, he says he doesn’t hold grudges against classmates. He came to embrace what makes him unique, even if that means not always fitting in. “I’m a nerd and I love it,” he says.

Not everyone is that resilient. Researchers at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia published a study in June showing that cyberbullying — bullying that occurs on chat and social media platforms rather than the playground — is associated with suicidal thoughts among teens who have been victims of violence is connected. The study’s authors recommend doctors screen children for cyberbullying as they do for depression.

“Passive Aggressive Bullying”

Laurel Aronian, a 15-year-old high school sophomore in Westchester County, NY, says the exclusion from group chats has become more apparent during Covid-19. She sometimes had Zoom calls with friends after school, but noticed other times that her friends’ contact statuses indicated they were on Zoom calls without her.

“It’s very easy to feel left out,” she says.

She says bullying that doesn’t involve abusive behavior can be explained away by the people doing it, making it difficult to report to adults. For example, if an adult gets wind of a group chat and asks kids why someone wasn’t included, they can say it was an accident.

Children who deliberately leave others out often don’t seem as cruel and are often liked by teachers, says Andrea Lovanhill, executive director of Committee for Children, a nonprofit provider of social-emotional learning curricula.

At the end of Laurel’s eighth grade, students had to give a speech about something they felt passionate about, and she chose to speak up about what she calls passive-aggressive bullying, or “under-the-radar bullying.”

When she surveyed her eighth grade classmates, most respondents said they had been bullied in subtle ways, while some said they had witnessed such treatment but had not stopped.

Recognize and deal with bullying

Exclusion can hurt even when it is part of normal child development and socializing. But when children intentionally and repeatedly exclude someone from online groups to make that child feel bad, it can be seen as bullying, says Ms Lovanhill.

She suggests parents help their children recognize if they have been left out due to a changing friendship dynamic or if they have actually been bullied by playing out different scenarios with them. Parents can also ask their children how a true friend would treat them and suggest that they try to befriend other people.

Several anti-bullying organizations, including Stopbullying.gov, administered by the US Department of Health and Human Services, recommend teaching children how to be “sincere” by stopping bullying or reporting it when they see it. For example, when teens notice a friend has been kicked out of a group chat, they can ask why that person is missing and suggest adding them.

Laurel Aronian says when she struggles with being ostracized, she focuses on hobbies like chess and music. “It allows me to put energy into improving things that I have control over,” she says.

She’s also made it a priority to be inclusive herself. For example, when she meets new people at her chess club, she makes sure to invite them to the club’s group chat, which every member participates in.

“The only way to fight bullying is to be nice,” she says.

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