Bullying is not new but “in the old days,” children could take refuge at home, where they felt safe and unthreatened. Unfortunately, teens are now being bullied at home over the Internet. Online harassment can leave victims feeling helpless, overwhelmed, and unable to escape from the torment. Examples of cyberbullying include: vicious forum posts; name calling in chat rooms; posting fake profiles on web sites; mean or cruel email messages; spreading lies and rumors; tricking people into revealing personal information; and posting embarrassing pictures of victims without their consent. Cyberbullying can be even more stressful when the threatening or taunting emails or posts are anonymous so that the victim feels like everybody is against them.
Bullying has been around forever but cyberbullying is different because it lets a bully remain anonymous. It is easier to bully in cyberspace than it is to bully face to face. With cyberbullying a bully can pick on people with much less risk of being caught. Bullies are natural instigators and in cyberspace bullies can enlist the participation of other students. The Internet makes bullying more convenient, and since the victim’s reaction remains unseen, people who wouldn’t normally bully, don’t take it as seriously.
Recent research has shown that victims of cyberbullying reported higher depression than cyberbullies or victims of regular bullying, and were almost twice as likely to have attempted suicide than teens who have not experienced cyberbullying. Cyber victims are much more likely to feel isolated, dehumanized or helpless because they cannot see or identify their attacker.
What Can Teens Do?
The most important thing a victim of any type of bullying can do is not respond to the bully. In the case of cyberbullying, that means do not answer emails, do not respond to posts, do not engage in a chat room exchange, and do not repeat the behavior of the bully. Ignore the bullying and get help from parents and teachers. While ignoring the bully, be sure to save the evidence (keep copies of posts, emails, etc.) so that school officials, Internet providers and possibly the police can properly deal with the bully if necessary. Cyberbullying may give bullies anonymity but it always leaves evidence.
Even if you have not been a victim of cyberbullying, there are some simple things you can do to stop this type of behavior:
- Refuse to pass along cyberbullying messages
- Tell friends to stop cyberbullying
- Block communication with cyberbullies
- Report cyberbullying to a trusted adult
- Remember: If you wouldn’t say it in person, don’t say it online. Don’t write it. Don’t forward it.
What Can Parents Do?
Parents should talk to their children about this issue. Cyberbullying is too prevalent to ignore, and the earlier you introduce this discussion, the better prepared your child will be to avoid becoming a cyberbully and to handle electronic intimidation they may encounter. Discuss it calmly and rationally with your children, just as you would any other serious issue such as sex and spending money. Together with your child, develop rules about acceptable and safe behaviors for all electronic media. Make plans for what they should do if they become a victim of electronic aggression or know someone who is being victimized. Things to talk about include:
- Explain to teens that online harassment is not harmless fun. Spreading lies about someone results in that student being ostracized. Setting up a nasty fake profile on a social networking site can make that student a target for sexual predators or receive scary, crude messages from friends and strangers.
- Teach youth the basics of smart and savvy Web behavior, such as never revealing passwords or real last names.
- Tell teens to never pass along harmful or cruel messages or images.
- Train children to delete suspicious email messages without opening them.
- Ask teens to step up to friends who are cyberbullying and tell them to stop.
- Teach youth how to use technology to block communication with cyberbullies.
- Speak to teens about the importance of telling an adult about any cyberbullying they witness.
Additionally, be sure to be vigilant about your teens’ computer use. Parents often ask children where they are going and who they are going with when they leave the house, but they should ask these same questions when their child goes on the Internet. Place the computer in a common area so that your child’s online time can be supervised. Visit the websites your child frequents, and assess the pros and cons. And don’t forget that your child can access the Internet on their cell phone, a friend’s computer, Ipods, and many other devices; do not think that simply watching them on your family’s computer is enough.
Parents should be aware that children are reluctant to disclose victimization for fear of having their Internet and cellular phone privileges revoked. You may want to develop solutions to prevent or address victimization that do not punish the child.
Parents also need to understand that a child is just as likely to be a cyberbully as a victim of cyberbullying and often go back and forth between the two roles during one incident. The child may not even realize that they have become an aggressor. For example, when Teen A spreads a nasty rumor about Teen B, often Teen B will retaliate with a similar rumor to get back at Teen A.
If your child should become a victim, you need to be very supportive. Do not brush off the magnitude of the attack. You may be tempted to give the “stick and stones may break your bones, but words will never hurt you” lecture, but words and cyberattacks can wound a child easily and have a lasting effect. These attacks follow them into your otherwise safe home through cell phones, texts, and wherever they go online.
Inform the school of the attack so that, at a minimum, the guidance counselor can keep an eye out for in-school bullying and for how your child is handling things. Do your best to make your child feel secure. If there is any indication that personal contact information has been posted online, or any threats are made to your child, contact your local law enforcement agency (not the FBI) right away.
What Can Schools Do?
Schools walk a delicate balance. Some schools that have tried to discipline a student for cyberbullying actions that took place off-campus and outside of school hours have been sued for exceeding their authority and violating the student’s free speech right. Irregardless, parents should inform the school if they become aware of any cyberbullying issue. Schools can be very effective brokers in working with the parents to stop and remedy cyberbullying situations. Finally, schools have the opportunity to educate the students on cyberethics and the law. Schools should take the initiative to hold an assembly and explain to the students what constitutes cyberbullying, what the consequences are for that behavior, the school’s policy, and suggestions for how the youth can stop and/or prevent it.
When Should the Police Become Involved?
The police are unlikely to become involved if the bullying is limited to a few isolated incidents or a couple of mean emails or instant messages. However, if you get even one communication that includes a threat of bodily harm or a death threat, the police should be alerted. Be aware that urging suicide is considered a death threat and the police will treat it accordingly. Repeated or excessive harassment via email, forums or chat rooms is harassment and also should involve the police.
If you decide to contact the police, take a print-out of all instances of cyberbullying to show them, but note that a print-out is not sufficient to prove a case of cyber-harassment or cyberbullying. You’ll need electronic evidence and live data for that. Let the law enforcement agency know that the trained cyber-harassment volunteers at WiredSafety.org will work with them (without charge) to help them find the cyberbully offline and to evaluate the case. It is crucial that all electronic evidence is preserved to allow the person to be traced and to take whatever action needs to be taken. The electronic evidence is at risk for being deleted by the Internet service providers unless you reach out and notify them that you need those records preserved. The volunteers at WiredSafety.org can advise you how to do that.