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Online Aggression

Kelly remembers the first time she typed on a real computer. She was in college and had been faithful and devoted to her word processor for years. But the first time she tried her friend's desktop, she fell in love at first type; it seemed like magic.

Children today have never known a world without computers and are amazingly technologically savvy compared with their parents' generation. Even fifth- and sixth-graders have iPods, their own e-mail addresses, blogs and more. Our seventh-grader insists he is the only kid in his class without a cell phone, and, we must admit, he is very nearly right.

Much of the technology to which our children are exposed is beneficial. However, like most things in life, there is usually a downside. One downside to tech-savvy children is the prevalence of online bullying among teens and tweeners. I-Safe America, an organization promoting Web safety, surveyed 1,500 students from the fourth to eight grades, and 45 percent admitted to having been bullied in some way online, and 53 percent acknowledged saying something mean to someone online.

Cyberbullying has many faces. Kids have impersonated their peers, getting them in trouble with friends or love interests. They have stolen passwords, locking their victims out of their own e-mail accounts. Or they have sent a series of vicious e-mails, often exposing private information from a victim's life to anyone who will read the e-mail message.

Cyberbullies can also wage tech attacks on their victims, organizing friends to send thousands of text messages to a cell phone and racking up a hefty bill. One of the most common types of cyberbullying involves Internet polling, where the bullies ask online for responses to belittling questions, such as "Who is the fattest seventh grader at York Middle School?"

Some cyberbullying tactics involve taking compromising photos of peers in locker rooms, with members of the opposite sex, or even in the restroom. The perpetrators then send the pictures to everyone on their phone favorites list with instructions to send them to all their friends.

The possibilities to harm others using the Internet are limited only by a child's imagination and computer skills. Scary, huh?

Unfortunately, many victims of cyberbullying suffer in silence because they are afraid their parents will overreact. They worry their parents will worsen the situation by calling other parents, blaming the victim or taking away Internet privileges.

An excellent Web site for parents and children called www.stopcyberbullying.org recommends that parents save the evidence (for example, printing out threatening e-mails), try to identify the bully, use a block or filter to prevent the bully from contacting your child in the future, and in some cases, contact the school guidance counselor to support your child in the school setting. In extreme circumstances, where your child's safety is being threatened, parents should call the police and contact an attorney.

Our children are just starting to show an interest in the Internet and in e-mailing their friends, but we want to prepare them for the eventual possibility that either they will be bullied or one of their friends will be.

To help them understand, we teach them empathy. Cyberbullies often don't think about their victims because they never have to face them. They can hide behind their computer screens. We want to teach our children that to have computer privileges, they must follow the rule "If you can't say it in person, don't say it online." Also, we want to teach them to defend victims just as we would hope they'd do for victims of face-to-face bullying. Silence when someone else is suffering is not acceptable behavior.

Keeping the lines of communication open with our children is also important. They are more likely to confide in us during difficult times if we are involved with their everyday lives. Also, we are more apt to notice a change--perhaps a reluctance to go to school or to go online, both possible signs that a child is the victim of cyberbullying.

Before school let out for the summer, we attended a middle school orientation for our son. The principal said to the parents who attended, "I wish I could tell you that you are in for a fun ride and that everything will be wonderful, but I can't because chances are it won't."

Being a teen-ager is hard. There are the hormones, the need for greater independence, the peer issues. Bullying is a hard bone to swallow in any of its vicious forms, but cyberbullying invades a teen's safe haven, her home, through her computer.

We hope teaching our children empathy will prevent them from attempting bullying as well as give them the courage to support others. Computers are central to most teens' lives. Let's foster the skills they need to negotiate their interactions online in safe and healthy ways.

Alan and Kelly Taylor live in Liverpool with their five children. Kelly holds a master's degree in family studies; Alan is an assistant professor in Syracuse University's department of child and family studies.

© Family Times: The Parenting Guide of Central New York