A Parent’s Guide to Cyberbullying

The schoolyard bully has a new, and more powerful, venue.

A Parent’s Guide to Cyberbullying

As she heads up the aisle to her seat in math class, Lisa hears some snickering comments behind her. She turns her head and sees Janelle pointing and laughing at her. “Did I sit on something at lunch,” she wonders, glancing down at her jeans. Then she overhears someone else say, “I can’t believe she did that –  what a skank!” Lisa has no clue what’s going on ‘til she meets up with her best friend Cathy in the library. “That was quite the blog you put online last night,” says Cathy.

Lisa finds out that someone using her name has boasted online about partying with three of the high school football team members, providing details about the sexual acts performed. Devastated, Lisa leaves the library and now notices everyone looking at her, sneering and laughing. She heads home in tears and vows never to return to school again.

Lisa’s story may be shocking but it is not unique. It is, unfortunately, a prime example of the type of bullying that goes on today in the cyber world. In classrooms of the past, notes were passed, folded in a secret way to hide the contents, or were rolled up in a tube inside a pen to forgo detection. Today, kids who are intent on bullying resort to using all of the technology at their disposal, including email, cell phones, text messages, and websites, to threaten, harass, embarrass, socially exclude, or damage reputations and friendships. It’s called cyberbullying.

Using computers and cell phones, cyberbullies can transmit negative messages about someone across a vast network. With camera phones, they can send embarrassing pictures instantly to an array of people. They can set up web pages designed to trash someone’s reputation –  without the person being aware of it. For example, some bullies set up, “We hate you” websites with pictures of the target. Peers are invited to post comments –  usually negative. Eventually someone will let the target know that the website exists, to further his humiliation.

While social bullying in the schoolyard has long been associated with girls, just as many boys as girls participate in online bullying. Many of these kids admit that they do or say things online that they would not do face to face because they feel anonymous in the cyber world.

How rampant is cyberbullying? According to a Microsoft Canada and Youthography Internet Safety Survey carried out in January 2009, 40 per cent of kids surveyed had been cyberbullied. Of those, 43% were female and 38% were male. The survey found that teens were much more likely than tweens to be cyberbullied (51% vs. 23%). These statistics also reveal that cyberbullying is on the rise.

The role of the bystander

Just as there are “bystanders” in face-to-face bullying, there are also bystanders in cyberbullying. In “real life”, the bystander is afraid to stand up to the bully and by his silence allows the bullying to continue. In the cyber world, bystanders are those that further the reach of the cyberbully by passing on text messages, forwarding links to sites, or posting messages on blog sites that are intended to harm someone.

Peer pressure is clearly at work in the genre of cyberbullying just as it is in real life bullying. But since the cyber world is in some ways endless, the amount of harm that can be done to a child by cyberbullying is magnified greatly.

The upside of technology

Communication technology is not bad in itself. Kids count on it to connect with the world in many positive ways. Kids use technology to do research for class, download music and movies, bid online for auction items (e-bay), catch up on the television shows they’ve missed, connect with classmates and a host of other things.

In fact, kids are much more adept at navigating the cyber highway than many parents. Kids have even created their own texting language as a quicker, more concise way to write messages. But it also acts as a foil to parents who do not understand the language.
For instance, do you know what “4u 4COL MIRL OB P” means? Here’s the translation:

“I have a question for you; for crying out loud; let’s meet in real life; Oh baby, parents watching!” (Go to http://www.webopedia.com/quick_ref/textmessageabbreviations.asp to find out more.)

Parents should have a good handle on texting language and also familiarize themselves with the various types of technology their kids use. Get your kids to teach you how to navigate the cyber world. Use time together to explore Facebook, My Space and YouTube and discuss the content you see. This gives your child a chance to feel empowered by reversing roles with her parent.

It can also be a non-threatening way to get your views across. For instance, talk about how important it is to be respectful towards others in life and online and how difficult it is to take back anything that is sent in a text message, or any other form of online communication. If you come across web pages that are defamatory to someone, talk about how the victim would feel and how the bystander should respond.

For most kids, using the various technologies available to them is fun. It is only negative when it is used to convey hateful or spiteful information.

When a child is targeted

One thing that differentiates cyberbullying from face to face bullying is that it is pervasive and relentless – home is no longer a refuge for a targeted child. Bullying results in emotional wounds to the victim that can be difficult to heal. In extreme cases, kids commit suicide because they feel there is no escape from the bullying.

That’s why it’s so important for parents to watch for signs that their child is being cyberbullied. Kids who are the target of cyberbullying will act out of the ordinary. They may become angry, sad or depressed. They may not want to attend school or even interact in the community. They may have mood changes or bouts of crying and may even self-harm.

The problem may not be apparent at home, but could surface at school, as the peer group becomes aware of the cyber tales about the target. Targeted kids may avoid certain classes, skip school, become loners and no longer enjoy being in that social environment.

You’ll want to establish good open communication with your kids about their online activity and about cyberbullying, so they will come to you if they are being bullied (or if they are aware of someone else being bullied). Threats to limit access to online technology will only have a negative effect on your ability to communicate with your child.

If your child is a victim of cyberbullying, don’t respond online. Caution your child not to respond either –  bits and pieces of her response can be altered and sent out to the network, and work against her. Notify the school –  they need to be aware of what is happening because cyberbullying most often spills over into the school environment. Also notify the police.

Old rules still apply

Technology can be wonderful, giving kids the tools necessary to communicate in today’s society. But that doesn’t mean that the old rules we grew up with don’t apply. And respect for others is the number 1 rule. We need to make sure our kids use respectful communication in their daily lives as well as their online lives. And that means being more involved with the world they live in much of the time – the cyber world.

Author: Debra Cockerton

Debra Cockerton is a writer, counsellor and workshop facilitator. She can be reached at deb_cockerton@hotmail.com.

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