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As parents of adolescents can attest, teens use technology to socialize more than ever. Most have access to the Internet and e-mail through multiple devices such as computers, cell phones and smartphones. They use social networking sites like Facebook and MySpace. Texts and instant messages are common ways to communicate. Unfortunately their communication isn’t always positive. As adolescent use of technology has increased, so has cyberbullying.
Cyberbullying involves kids sending or receiving harassing, insulting or embarrassing information over the Internet or via text message. Cyberbullying occurs between minors—it’s different from cyberstalking or harassment between an adult and a minor.
Cyberbullying takes many forms and has a hurtful effect on those targeted. The numerous ways kids use technology to bully is daunting to many adults. Below are a few examples of cyberbullying.
Text/instant messages. Kids send hateful or harassing messages to each other using texts and instant messaging. This can involve “ganging up” on the victim, with multiple kids sending numerous messages.
Web sites and Facebook pages. Kids create Web sites or Facebook pages specifically to embarrass, ridicule and insult a peer or peers. The site or page might include pictures, personal information and “polling” where visitors to the site vote on the “ugliest kid in the 6th grade.”
Stealing passwords and impersonation. Kids often share passwords with each other. As this information circulates, the cyberbully uses it to access personal profiles and instant message accounts. The bully makes insulting or derogatory comments or posts posing as the victim. He sends e-mail or instant messages with hurtful, mean comments using the victim’s account. The bully often changes the password so the victim can no longer access the profile or account.
Cyberbullying can go on for a long time outside adult awareness. Kids tend not to tell parents they are being bullied via the Internet. They fear parents will “make things worse” by calling the other parents and taking away online access or text messaging.
Keep in mind kids are likely to be on both the giving and receiving end of this issue at different times. They don’t always view the behavior as harassment until on they’re on the receiving end.
Here are strategies for protecting children from cyberbullying.
Know where your kids are and whom they are with. This parenting adage also applies to socializing via technology. Keep computers in shared areas of the house and monitor your child’s online behavior. Check out Web sites she frequents, visit chat rooms or forums and read the posts.
Insist your child put you on the “friend” list of social networking sites your child belongs to. Look at her page and notice who is leaving comments and what is said. Get to know your child’s online friends just as you do other friends. Use what you find to start conversations with your child. Ask about her thoughts on specific posts or comments and talk about how cyberbullying works.
Google your child. At the first sign of cyberbullying, check the Web for your child’s name, address, cell number and any screen names or nicknames. Have him take preventative measures like changing passwords and blocking certain senders.
What if your child is the victim of cyberbullying?
How should parents get involved?
• Safety is the first concern. If personal information about your child has been posted on the Internet or threats have occurred, contact the police. Have your child stay offline until next steps are determined.
• If you are just concerned about the content or tone of interactions, start by talking to your child. Find out if online or texting activity is related to bullying behavior offline. Discourage your child from retaliating with similar comments or messages.
• If the situation is serious and kids from school are involved, alert the school. Even though kids don’t want parents to call their school, it’s important parents know what is happening. Although they are limited in what action they can take regarding outside activities, school personnel can monitor interactions between students at school. Any conflicts can be addressed and mediated, and parents can be contacted when needed.
• If your child’s online account password has been compromised or someone is impersonating her, make a formal complaint to the ISP (Internet service provider) security department. These activities can result in the cyberbully’s account being closed and future access restricted.
Adolescents will continue to use technology to communicate with friends. Parents’ awareness of cyberbullying and basic monitoring of kids’ use of technology will help keep the experience positive.
Cary and Tonja Rector are married and live with their children in Manlius. Cary is a licensed mental health counselor and Tonja is a licensed marriage and family therapist. Write to them in care of email@example.com. Consult your own health care provider before making decisions affecting your family’s well-being. To comment on this article, write to firstname.lastname@example.org.