Recognize & Prevent Cyberbullying
Kids seem to have an innate ability to use technology. As a result, when problems such as cyberbullying arise, some parents find themselves completely in the dark. “Parents are way behind the kids in understanding cyberbullying,” says Priscilla Sands, PhD, head of school at Springside School in Philadelphia.
Cyberbullying — the use of media such as the Internet or a cell phone to publish material that is hurtful to others — has been blamed for several recent teen suicides, including Rutgers University freshman Tyler Clementi and Phoebe Prince, a Massachusetts 15-year-old. It “appears to be a growing problem, directly tied to the growth in the use of these technologies by young people,” says author Nancy Willard, executive director of the Center for Safe and Responsible Use of the Internet.
According to Sands, kids often don’t grasp how quickly their comments can spread online. “Once it’s out there, it can go viral very fast,” she says.
Is Cyberbullying a Crime?
“Not all cyberbullying rises to the level of harassment,” says Patricia Dailey Lewis, director of the Family Division at the Delaware Department of Justice. Most comments posted on social networking sites are protected by free speech rights, no matter how mean-spirit they are.
But it crosses the line if the comments are harassing, threatening, terrorizing or incite others to do harm, says Lewis. Contact legal authorities if your child receive a message that frightens her, or if the message asks her to do something she knows she shouldn’t do.
Can Schools Punish Cyberbullies?
Stuart Green, MD, founder of the NJ Coalition for Bullying Awareness and Prevention, reports that most bullying occurs where kids spend the most time: school. Dr. Green believes that cyberbullying is a problem that schools must address, because they need to ensure that students feel safe at school. But what can a school really do about it if the bullying doesn’t take place on school grounds?
“Schools have very limited jurisdiction,” says Lewis. If the attack happens at school or using school equipment, they have the authority to punish a student, but they can rarely take strong measures unless the cyberbullying poses a specific threat or danger to someone at the school.
On the other hand, addressing cyberbullying offers a significant educational opportunity for schools. Teaching students awareness of this problem helps prevent attacks. “The fact is, most bullying can be prevented,” says Dr. Green.
What Parents Can Do
First, educate yourself. “You’ve gotta learn this stuff,” says Lewis of cell phones and computers. Get to know the social networking sites, particularly the ones your kids use. Most popular sites have info for parents that doesn’t require membership to read. (See Web Resources.)
It’s important to talk to your kids about cyberbullying, and be willing to help when problems arise. “Kids need to know how to respond, including self-help and obtaining assistance,” says Willard. When talking to kids:
► Let them know they should come to you for help if they see or experience something that makes them feel uncomfortable.
► When children talk about cyberbullying, take it seriously and don’t minimize it.
► Tell them not to retaliate; the bully may give up if she does not receive a response. Conversely, retaliation will fan the fire.
► Disconnect for a while from the Interent or trouble source. Ignore, rather than respond to, bullying comments.
► Don’t ban communications devices in response to a bullying attack. “Good luck removing the technology,” says Willard. “For teens this is excommunication, in the very basic meaning of that word.”
► Block cell phone calls from unwanted phone numbers, “unfriend” students who publish unwelcome Facebook posts and do what you can to cut off a source of cyberbullying. Many service providers and websites make this easy to do.
► Teach children good Internet practices, such as keeping tight privacy settings on social networking sites and passwords secret.
While cyberbullying can deliver hurtful comments to vulnerable teens, meanness is not unique to this stage of life. “All through life, people will say things that will upset you,” says Lewis. “You can’t allow your kids to be terrorized, but you can’t shelter them from everything in life either,” she says.
Respond appropriately to cyberbullying, then move on, she advises. “The good news is, kids grow out of it,” says Dr. Sands.
Suzanne Koup-Larsen is a contributing writer to MetroKids.