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Cyberbullying: What You Need to Know to Protect Your Children

Bullying has caught up with the 21st century. Although the methods of "old-fashioned" bullying (name-calling, physical threats) still exist, kids are now turning to the Internet to torment their vulnerable peers, in a new type of harassment dubbed "cyberbullying."

child internet safety

What starts out as a prank instant message ... "Everyone at school hates you" ... can devastate the receiving child's emotional health.

This may be the first time that you're hearing about cyberbullying, but it's not new to schools. In fact, cyberbullying is now so widespread that "many experts say it is the most disruptive threat to the school day," according to the

Up to one in three teens who use the Internet have experienced some type of online bullying, according to a 2007 Pew Internet & American Life study, yet teens are far from the only ones impacted.

Schools are now including cyberbullying in their student codes of conduct, and are routinely having students -- even first graders -- sign contracts vouching for their proper computer usage.

Cyberbullying: Grounds for Expulsion

Many states are proposing legislation to make cyberbullying grounds for expulsion and even prosecution -- of the student and their parents. But what makes cyberbullying unique from, and some say even worse than, traditional bullying is that it can cross from the schoolyard into the place even a bullied student could feel safe: their home.

Because of this, legislation geared at cyberbullying includes not only that which occurs on school grounds, but also cyberbullying done from a personal computer or cell phone during non-school hours, and not on school grounds. Why? Because its effects have the potential to disrupt school the next day, or even cause a bullied student to miss school because of the abuse.

What Exactly is Cyberbullying?

Cyberbullying is an online/cyberspace version of traditional bullying that can involve text messages from cell phones, online gaming sites, Web sites, e-mails, instant messages, and more. According to the National Crime Prevention Council (NCPC), some of the more common methods include:

child internet safety

Girls are more likely to cyberbully by spreading rumors or making fun of someone, while boys tend to send sexual messages or physical threats.

  • Sending mean or threatening e-mails, instant messages or text messages to someone

  • Excluding someone from an instant messenger buddy list or blocking their e-mail for no reason

  • Tricking someone into revealing embarrassing or personal information, then sending it to others

  • Posing as someone online and posting cruel or untrue messages

  • Creating Web sites on social online sites to make fun of another person (a classmate, teacher, etc.)

  • Using Web sites to rate peers (as prettiest, ugliest, fattest, most unpopular, etc.) or spread rumors

While both boys and girls can be cyberbullies, they tend to do so in different ways, according to NCPC. Boys are more likely to send messages of a sexual nature, or to threaten someone physically online, whereas girls typically cyberbully by spreading rumors, excluding others from their buddy lists, and sending messages making fun of someone.

According to many experts, cyberbullying may actually make up the worst type of bullying: verbal abuse. Studies have, indeed, found that verbal assaults are often more painful than physical ones when it comes to bullying.

"Words can hurt your soul," said Stephen Wessler, director of the Center for the Study and Prevention of Hate Violence at the University of Southern Maine.

In fact, according to NCPC, "cyberbullying can seem more extreme to its victims," and here's why:

  • It can take place in the child's home, so there is no "safe" zone.

  • It can be even meaner, as kids may say things online that they wouldn't say to someone's face.

  • It has a greater audience. With one click, a bully can send a rumor to an entire class, or post mean things on a Web site for anyone to see.

  • It can be anonymous. Cyberbullies can use screen names to hide their real identities.

  • It can occur almost anywhere. Since kids increasingly use the Internet and cell phones to socialize, getting away from a cyberbully would mean giving up what has become an important social tool for many kids.

How to Recognize, and Stop, Cyberbullying

Symptoms that your child is being cyberbullied will be nearly identical to those from a traditional bully. Your child may:

  • Lose self-esteem

  • Be depressed

  • Lose interest in hobbies

  • Have a drop in grades

  • Complain about feeling sick

  • Not want to go to school, or skip school

  • Become socially withdrawn

  • Cry easily, talk of running away or threaten to commit suicide

Stopping cyberbullying, however, is somewhat different than with traditional bullying, largely because much of it occurs at home. As a parent, you can help to curb cyberbullying by teaching your child a few protective measures, including:

  • Not putting anything on a Web site, e-mail or text message that they wouldn't want their classmates to see

  • Not giving out their online passwords, even to friends

  • Not opening e-mail or text messages that you suspect are from a bully

  • Not sending messages when you're angry

  • Not taking part in spreading rumors or saying mean things online

Finally, there are some practical tips that kids can use (under your supervision) to stop cyberbullying that's taking place:

  • Restrict who can send you messages (block those who you don't want to communicate with).

  • Restrict others from being able to add you to their buddy list (and therefore know when you're online to harass you). This can usually be done by changing your computer's privacy control settings.

  • "Google" your name, screen name, cell phone number, etc., to find any online postings about you that may be spreading rumors. You can even set up an alert from Google to let you know if your name is posted online.

  • Report the incidents to your Internet Service Provider (ISP). Most cases of harassment violate most ISP's terms of service.

  • Report the incidents to the school. They may not have authority over what occurs outside of school (the laws are still being formed in this area), but they can keep an eye out for anything going on at school.

  • Report the incidents to the police. If your safety is threatened, personal contact information is posted online or you are otherwise seriously harassed online, you can report the incident to the police.

Recommended Reading

The Dark Side of Social Online Sites Like MySpace to Beware Of: Threats to Privacy & Self

Child Identity Theft: How to Secure Your Kids Against the #1 Fastest-Growing Identity Theft

Sources September 14, 2007

National Crime Prevention Council: Cyberbullying

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