Whether it’s physical abuse, verbal abuse or simply social exclusion, bullying has always been a problem for kids and teens. Unfortunately, the bullying that you may have seen or dealt with as a child is no longer the only threat facing our youth. As technology has evolved, so too have the means by which children can provoke, torment and agonize one another.
A new form of bullying has emerged that has ruined countless kids’ lives and left parents feeling helpless. It’s called cyberbullying, and it’s one of the biggest problems facing youth online today. Know how to recognize and prevent cyberbullying.
What is cyberbullying?
Cyberbullying, like conventional bullying, typically involves an aggressor preying on a weaker individual to feel better about his or her own insecurities. Unfortunately, unlike conventional bullying, cyberbullying is more difficult to identify and prevent because it takes place primarily online and through other electronic communications such as text messaging. By the time that many parents realize their child is being bullied, the psychological trauma the child has sustained is overwhelming.
In some cases, the pain caused by cyberbullying becomes so severe that it leads to suicide, as in the tragic case of 13-year-old Megan Meier, whose death brought national attention to the issue. Sadly, however, the attention surrounding Megan Meier’s death and the subsequent trial of her alleged tormentors, which ended with a dismissal, only lasted temporarily. In fact, a study from the C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital National Poll on Children’s Health showed that parents continue to treat cyberbullying as a secondary threat.
The aim of this article is to help you understand how to recognize the signs and symptoms of cyberbullying and the steps you can take to prevent it from happening to your children and other kids in your community.
Keep your home computer in a central location.
It’s increasingly common for teens to have their own personal computers or laptops. While this presents many benefits for them as students, it also prevents parents from being able to effectively monitor their child’s Internet habits. If you keep the family computer in a public area of the house, it will be easier for you to keep tabs on what websites your child is visiting and how often.
Keeping your computer in a common area can also help you identify when your children are upset by something they’ve found online. During their teen years, children are still maturing emotionally. Often, rather than talking about what is upsetting them, they will try and work out their problems themselves and keep their feelings inside. If your children are dealing with their cyberbullying issues in the privacy of their room, you may not learn how deeply it’s affecting their life until it’s too late. Early identification is key to know how to recognize and prevent cyberbullying.
Join the social network yourself — but in “lurk only” mode.
One of the best ways to understand what goes on inside the social networking world is to join a social networking website yourself. If you use the same social networking site as your kids, you can keep a closer eye on their activities. There’s a good possibility that your children will bristle at accepting your friend request, but if you don’t bother them too much or encroach on their space, you should be ok.
Remember that although you’re trying to protect your children, social networking sites still offer an important place for them to develop valuable social skills.
If you’re going to use your Facebook or MySpace accounts to monitor your kids, we recommend going into “lurk” mode. If you constantly force yourself into your child’s conversations, there is a strong chance you’ll drive them to create a new secret account you can’t monitor as easily.
Talk to your kids early and often about the Internet.
Help your kids understand how to recognize when they’re being cyberbullied by teaching them what is and isn’t acceptable online behavior. Usually, this is common sense. For example, your kids should already know that telling lies about people is wrong. Make sure they understand it’s not right to tell lies about people online either.
Conversely, if someone is spreading lies or rumors about them online, teach them that it’s ok to tell someone. Often, cyberbullying incidents escalate because a victim seeks to defend oneself, rather than reporting the attack.
Monitor your kids online.
Ideally, your kids will answer all your questions openly and honestly. Unfortunately, anyone who has spent any time around teens knows that the perception of privacy is incredibly important.
Computer Monitoring Tools
That’s why you may want to consider investing in computer monitoring tools. Numerous software programs allow you to limit the time your child spends on the computer and also to monitor exactly what sites your child logs into. Unfortunately, knowing where your child goes online is less crucial than knowing how your child acts online. What most web tracking software doesn’t do is monitor the actual content about your child on the web.
One option is to set up Google Alerts to send you a daily email whenever your child’s name gets mentioned. While effective on a basic level, a Google Alert doesn’t effectively search the Invisible Web, which isn’t accessible using typical Web search engines and which may store the majority of the information your child might be sharing.
Some parents may be concerned that they’re spying on their kids, but that’s an oversimplification. Being a spy implies that you’re only interested in finding something bad. Be honest with your kids by telling them you’ll check what they do online from time to time. Hopefully, their awareness of your presence will be enough to modify their behavior.
Work with your kids’ teachers and other parents.
Cyberbullying is rarely a problem that affects only one child. That’s why you should consider reaching out to others in your community to help develop a network of adults who can work together to help prevent cyberbullying.
Get your school involved.
It’s also perfectly appropriate to get your school district involved. If your child suspects who the bully is, you can tell school administrators, and they can arrange an intercession. At the very least, they can monitor your child more closely to make sure the bullying doesn’t continue during school hours.
If the bullying is happening during school hours and on the school’s computer network, the school may be able to track down the bully and deal with the problem directly. The more people who know how to recognize and prevent cyberbullying, the better.
Get the parents involved.
If you know who the cyberbully is, don’t be afraid to contact his or her parents to try to resolve the issue. However, if you don’t have any substantial proof that a particular child is responsible, it may be a bad idea to confront the parents directly. Consider instead calling or emailing them and respectfully asking for their assistance.
Teach your kids to keep their personal information private.
One of the cruelest forms of cyberbullying occurs when a bully hijacks another student’s account, locks them out and then pretends to be the victim. By the time your child has regained control of his or her account, the child’s name and reputation may be smeared across the Internet, potentially hurting their chances of getting into college or finding a job.
To help ensure that your child’s account doesn’t get hijacked,
- teach your child the importance of keeping personal and private information (such as his or her birth date, phone number and address) out of social networking profiles.
- Additionally, work with your child on creating a super strong password that classmates would be unable to guess. Some specific tips include using a combination of uppercase and lowercase letters, symbols and numbers. Making a pneumonic phrase into a password is also a good option (example: “I, John Brown, was born at 5:00 in the AM” becomes “IJBwb@5itAM”).
Know your legal rights.
In some cases, especially when cyberbullying involves physical threats of violence, pornography or severe harassment, contacting the police may be an option. While this is certainly not advisable under all circumstances, knowing your child’s legal rights as a victim of cyberbullying is very important.
Not all states have specific criminals laws governing acts of cyberbullying, so you should check with your local police department for more information. You can also check out this PDF report from the Cyberbullying Research Center for up-to-date information on cyberbullying laws across the United States.
General Law Covering Bullying
If there’s no criminal law protecting cyberbullying in your jurisdiction, there may be a general law covering bullying. Additionally, in some situations, it’s possible to sue bullies or their parents in civil court.
The StopBullying.gov website from the US Department of Health and Human Services contains helpful information about bullying and cyberbullying and explains your legal rights. Use their information in addition to that layed out here to truly know how to recognize and prevent cyberbullying.
Although it’s a slow process, people are beginning to see the ramifications of cyberbullying and are working together to fix the problem. MTV was one of the first mainstream media groups to step into the ring, with their multiyear cyberbullying awareness program called “A Thin Line.” The Internet Keep Safe Coalition is another group that has developed a comprehensive set of resources.
While the work that these organizations are doing is invaluable in helping the world understand cyberbullying, the real change needs to happen at an individual level. Taking time out of your day to talk to your children about the Web and the dangers of cyberbullying is an important step toward protecting their lives and the lives of all their peers.