A Priest’s Thoughts on Cyberbullying

This subtitle is The 7 Hidden Dangers of Smartphones for Teens.  The first of these seven is indeed cyberbullying.  Simply read the first one if you were lured-in by the title of this blog post. 

Recently, I was at a large family’s home. The kids were all out back blowing bubbles. The older kids, being about 10 years old, twirled foot-long wands out of their dish soap to create bubbles about six inches in diameter. The youngest brother who was playing bubbles with them was only five years old. He simply couldn’t help himself from popping his older sisters’ bubbles.  I told him: “Just make your own.” He looked at me with a smile of pure-gold and said, “Yes, sir.” He then tried so hard for the next five minutes to obey me and his sisters’ pleas for longer bubble-longevity. He cranked out a few smaller bubbles.  Still, he ended up running back to pop their bigger bubbles. He simply couldn’t help himself! His sisters and I were laughing at how he tried but failed.

The above bubble-story is true, but it could also be an analogy for something more serious that is happening to teens everywhere: To tell a teenager to avoid bad things and bad people on a smartphone is akin to telling a five year old not to pop giant bubbles. They just can’t do it. Many good parents have handed over a smartphone to their kids, covering their tracks with overly-moralized instructions. The weak ones are addicted by the end of the day. The strong ones are exhausted by the end of the day. I have worked with many families that range from non-Catholic to devout Catholic. Yet almost all these parents make same mistake: Parents give their teen (or worse, a child) a smartphone by explaining internet safety. It’s a nice start, but it fails to understand that the real dangers lurk not in who your kids’ search for, but who is searching for your kids.

1) Cyberbullying. Growing up, I weighed 2/3 of what my friends weighed, so I got bullied occasionally on the playground. But I always had a way out. Cyberbullying targets do not have a way out. Cyberbullying is making fun of someone on social media. It is particularly harmful because of the backdrop of loneliness and isolation in families today. Global broadcasting against them on social media makes teens feel like the whole world is against them. This is obviously devastating to their social lives and psyches. Many teens are targeted for cyberbullying, but one that I will always remember is Kiana. Kiana was a cheerleader in my home state of Colorado. She was bullied online by “friends” who were jealous of her. They repeatedly made fun of her weight and told her to hang herself. Eventually, she obeyed their instructions and she hung herself. Her Dad found her barely alive. She was airlifted from the southern suburbs to Denver Children’s Hospital. She survived, but with severe brain damage, secondary to lack of oxygen before her father found her. This is her today:

Someone snapped that picture of us all, about two years after the tragedy. Kiana was not raised Catholic, but we still met later through mutual friends. I never expected to use the above picture for a blog post, but her mother gave me permission to write about this when I told her my concern about teens and technology. After coming out of the hospital, Kiana and her family got a Colorado law passed against cyberbullying. Subsequently, Kiana has told her story to Denver News stations.  Thus, this blog is not revealing anything private.

Of course, the reason we are all smiling in that picture is because Kiana is alive, and because she is a beautiful child of God. Her parents are wonderful and loving people. We all wish she had never been cyberbullied, but the whole family is attempting to overcome the tragedy in making a conscious efforts to live as the phrase says: “It is better to light one candle than to curse the darkness.”

I never asked her parents if the cyberbullying happened on a smartphone or a desktop, and that is irrelevant to this post. In fact, I am not judging parents as wonderful as the parents of Kiana. I am simply writing this so that my readers might know that even the best kids from the best families get cyberbullied. Kiana was a cheerleader in a nice suburb of Denver and yet probably no one knew she was getting cyberbullied. Readers might protest: “But my kids have never told me anything like that.” Exactly. They don’t tell anyone, for they are embarrassed to share. And then they hurt themselves. I recently asked a friend who works at a pediatric ICU if he has seen anything like teen suicides. He told me he had seen innumerable teen suicide attempts, some as young as 8 years old, sometimes by hanging. Of course, Satan is behind this hatred of our children. But on a natural level, I think that a lot has changed in America since I left Emergency Medical Services in 2004. In those days, I was only seeing adult suicides, never child suicides.

But nowadays, the loneliness and isolation of social media locks kids into a world that they cannot escape from. Since they can not escape from the virtual world without escaping from the real world, they do just that: They escape from the real world by committing suicide. Few of the parents of these suicides thought that their kids had a problem. Even the best kids in the world tend to hide their deepest feelings of inadequacy from their parents. Sometimes, kids simply believe that their parents are too busy. Or, sometimes parents see a little depression but remove themselves from the parent-role under the false pretext of inadequacy themselves. Maybe parents are afraid that they don’t have answers as brilliant as Dr. Phil. But the key to success is not having great answers. Simply “good” answers will do. In fact, the key to success is even more simple: Turn off the phones and turn your families on. Just be there for your kids. Just listen to them, even if you have lame answers. That’s all your kids are looking for, anyway. You can’t do that if you’re all looking at your own private device.  Get rid of the smartphones if you want to avoid cyberbullying.

2) Pornography  According to Covenant Eyes,  90% of boys and 60 percent of girls are exposed to Internet porn by age 18.  According to InternetSafety101, searches for “teen porn” tripled to 500,000 a day (!) from 2005 to 2013. A single site released their 2015 statistics, which state that a total of 4.3 billion hours of porn was watched there in 2015. Do you realize the difference between a million and a billion? It would take you about a week to count to a million.  It would take you over 30 years to count to one billion!   Now, 4.3 billion hours of porn were watched at one porn site in 2015.  There are only 7 billion people on this planet. That means that on average, every human being on this planet spent 40 minutes of his year on that single porn site. Of course, not everyone is looking at pornography, but a disproportionate number of those people using porn are teenagers. From great families. It’s so simple: If you give your kids a black-porn machine to keep in their pocket and bed, they will use it. If they don’t search for porn, porn will find them. I don’t know why this happens to teens and even children more than adults, but they are so susceptible to getting found by bad websites. Why gamble with your kids’ souls? That is exactly what you are doing if you give them a smartphone. (If you or someone you love is addicted to porn, scroll to the bottom of my blog post here to read some heavy-duty advice on to come off porn quickly and effectively.)

3) Sexting: Something “good kids” would never do, or maybe just sometimes: This is another term I did not learn until I was a priest, but this is when boyfriends and girlfriends text semi-nude or full-nude pictures to each other. Sometimes it’s just a body part. Besides being a mortal sin, here’s another reason to avoid it: Even the images that self-destruct after being sent can be saved by the recipient if he knows how to do a “screen save.” Another teen can save those forever, or embarrass the sender by putting it on the internet. Many boyfriends have embarrassed their ex-girlfriends this way, leading to more suicides of these poor girls (and sometimes boys.) Again, I promise you that your kids are not “too good” to get into this stuff. Some flip phones don’t have the ability to send pictures, so go for a flip-phone instead. (Funny we all grew up without flip-phones and even went to universities without them.)

4) Trafficking and kidnapping is a real danger to even the best kids on social media. Traffickers find kids, especially girls, through social media. See HERE and HERE and HERE to see how and why. Although social media can lead to outright kidnapping in other countries, the means in the United States are more subtle: Most traffickers in the United States lure in lonely girls through what those in the rescue movement call “Loverboy syndrome.” For example, a 24 year old male acts like he is the only one who understands a lonely 14 year old girl. She falls in love with him. He brings her to a hotel where her life is history. Other kids are trapped by traffickers through a job application or modeling job that they do not tell their parents about. Others teens find a “sugar daddy” to pay online for something they need, but the transaction must be done in person. Of course, the child is kidnapped at that first meeting.  This doesn’t just happen to “those types of families.”

“But my kid would never…” There are thousands of child sex-slaves in the United States. None of those kids had planned sex-slavery as a life. I once asked the FBI director of child cyber crimes in Chicago what it felt like to put away a criminal into prison. I thought he would give a tough guy answer to me about “throwing away the key.” Instead, he simple said: “It’s like taking a spoonful of water out of Lake Michigan.” In other words, he meant that there is an endless list of men abusing children, and one criminal behind bars makes almost no difference. But you can make a difference by not letting your kids on social media until they are 18.

5) Multi-tasking on devices destroys brain-matter. The University of Tokyo reports that “higher media multi-tasking activity is associated with smaller gray-matter density in the anterior cingulate cortex.”  Another study at the University of London “found that participants who multitasked during cognitive tasks experienced IQ score declines that were similar to what they’d expect if they had smoked marijuana.” (emphasis mine)  Larry Kim at the Observer notes that “a study from the University of Sussex ran MRI scans on the brains of individuals who spent time on multiple devices at once (texting while watching TV, for example). The MRI scans showed that subjects who multitasked more often had less brain density in the anterior cingulate cortex. That’s the area responsible for empathy and emotional control.”

It’s a good thing that none of your teens text while watching TV! Otherwise we might start to see a nation of kids with a lower IQ and lower empathy.  Marijuana and smartphones will lead the next generation of teens to create a world that looks like Idiocracy or any of the other dystopian films that are turning out to be strangely prophetic in a secular sort of way.

6) Smartphone Isolation and Self-Injury. As mentioned above, using multiple devices may reduce “emotional control.”  Usually self-injury means cutting oneself, but there are other forms, including burning. I have discovered in my priesthood that it is usually not suicidal.  At least 7% of University students do some form of self-injury according to the National Institute of Health study here.  But I have also read on self-injury websites that up to 25% of all University women in the United States do some form of self-injury.   I think it is closer to the latter.  Of course, I would never blog about anything confessional, but I can share a conversation that I had with a teenage boy when I was running a youth group from when I was a seminarian (before I was a priest.) I asked this 12 or 13 year old boy why he cut his arms up. I will never forget his answer. He said: “Because I can’t talk to anyone about anything.”

Indeed, his cut arms were pressure-release valves for his interior frustration of having no one to talk to. No friends. No parents who cared. It’s like the Goo-Goo Dolls line, “You bleed just to know you’re alive.”   If the anterior cingulate cortex of the brain is harmed by devices’ overuse and  that is the area responsible for empathy and emotional control, then the conclusion is obvious:  Isolated children with smartphones will not be able to control their emotions.  But they can control a knife on their arms.  Again, this is not suicidal.  It is an exterior manifestation of interior frustration that could sometimes (but not always) be alleviated by putting down the video games and getting outside to just play.  At the very least, turn off the phones and turn on life. That is the only answer.

7) You don’t need a smartphone and neither do your kids.  Remember Pascal’s wager on the existence of God? If God exists and you believe, you get heaven. If not, you get hell. If God doesn’t exist and you believe, you lose a little fun on earth. If not, you only gain a little fun on earth. Apply a wager like that to your kid having a smartphone: If you give your kid a smartphone and she fails at temptation, she is addicted or stalked or cyberbullied. If she navigates temptation well with her smartphone, she is exhausted at the end of the day (but still dumber) and slightly more popular with the social status of having an iPhone.

However, If you don’t give your kid a smartphone and she protests, then she is correct about some increasing mild social pressure to have a smartphone or inability to complete a certain internet homework assignments on the go (yeah right.)  If you refrain from smartphones in your family and she turns out psychologically and spiritually balanced, it means (from the six things I listed above) that she endured mild social ostracizing (for not having a smartphone) all for the sake of being:  Not cyberbullied, not addicted to pornography, not sexting boys you never met, not getting trafficked into sex-slavery, and…she lives with a lesser chance of cutting her arms.

Is the wager worth it?  Why bring your kids into the near-occasion of sin, and then tell them to avoid sin?

As I finished this article, I thought of renaming it “Why no one needs a smartphone.” We adults also need to ask if our soul in heaven is worth constant connectivity on earth. In 2003, I had one of the first phones with email and internet. The next year was my first year in seminary, so we had to give up all technology. In 2005, I got a simple flip phone, which I used all through the next five years. In fact, I used a flip phone for the first five years of my priesthood. I have been a priest seven years. The past two years I got a smartphone only for my blogging, videos and podcasts. My point is this: If I can go as an active priest until I am 36 with a flip phone, and still be available for emergencies, then most people don’t need a smartphone. In fact, I look forward to the day that I get rid of mine all together.

“If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out.”—Mt 5:29. This is not to be taken literally, except for the fact that sin functions like addiction, and addiction can only be broken by a self-discipline so serious that it often feels like a violence to the soul. “From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and the violent take it by force.”—Mt 11:12. Like any act of violent warfare, one can never negotiate with a terrorist, and this is true in spiritual warfare too. It might lead to many fights in the house to rid the family of smartphones, but addicted kids are crying out for discipline and boundaries, even if his or her initial response speaks to the contrary. Even if it leads to temporary arguments on homework assignments that can only be completed with a smart phone (yeah right) I still would hold on to this: No education or social status is worth your kids’ souls, bodies, or mental health.

In fact, if that smartphone causes you adults to sin, remember that no psuedo-availability to your job could possibly be worth the loss of your own soul. “If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell.”