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Dealing with Cyber-Bullies

Bullies have been around forever, but technology has given them a whole new platform for their actions. As grown-ups, we're becoming more aware that the "sticks and stones" adage no longer holds true; virtual name-calling can have real-world effects on the well being of children and adolescents.

It's not always easy to know how and when to step in as a mother or father. For starters, our children tend to use technology differently than we do. Many spend a lot of time on social networking sites, send text messages and instant messages (IMs) by the hundreds, and are likely to roll their eyes at the mention of email — that's "so old-school" to them. Their knowledge and habits can be intimidating, but they still need us as moms and dads.

Fortunately, our growing awareness of cyber-bullying has helped us learn a lot more about how to prevent it. Here are some suggestions on what to do if online bullying has become part of your youngster's life:

Cyber-bullying is the use of technology to harass, threaten, embarrass, or target another person. By definition, it occurs among young people. When an adult is involved, it may meet the definition of cyber-harassment or cyber-stalking, a crime that can have legal consequences and involve jail time.

Sometimes cyber-bullying can be clear-cut (e.g., leaving overtly cruel cell phone text messages or mean notes posted to Web sites). Other acts are less obvious, such as impersonating a victim online or posting personal information or videos designed to hurt or embarrass another youngster.

Cyber-bullying also can happen accidentally. The impersonal nature of text messages, IMs, and emails make it very hard to detect the sender's tone — one teen's joke or sense of humor could be another's devastating insult. Nevertheless, a repeated pattern of emails, text messages, and online posts is rarely accidental.

A 2006 poll from the national organization Fight Crime: Invest in Children found that 1 in 3 adolescents and 1 in 6 pre-adolescents have been the victims of cyber-bullying. As more and more youths have access to computers and cell phones, the incidence of cyber-bullying is likely to rise.

No longer limited to schoolyards or street corners, modern-day bullying can happen at home as well as at school — essentially 24 hours a day. And, for children who are being cyber-bullied, it can feel like there's no escape.

Severe cyber-bullying can leave victims at greater risk for anxiety, depression, and other stress-related disorders. In very rare cases, some children have turned to suicide.

The punishment for cyber-bullies can include being suspended from school or kicked off of sports teams. Certain types of cyber-bullying also may violate school codes or even anti-discrimination or sexual harassment laws.

Many children and adolescents who are cyber-bullied are reluctant to tell a teacher or parent, often because they feel ashamed of the social stigma, or because they fear their computer privileges will be taken away at home.

The signs that a youngster is being cyber-bullied vary, but a few things to look for are:
  • avoidance of school or group gatherings
  • changes in mood, behavior, sleep, or appetite
  • signs of emotional distress during or after using the Internet
  • slipping grades and "acting out" in anger at home
  • withdrawal from friends and activities

If you discover that your youngster is being cyber-bullied, be sure to discuss how it feels. Offer assurance that it's not your youngster's fault. Talking to educators or school administrators also may help.

Many schools, school districts, and after-school clubs have established protocols for responding to cyber-bullying; these vary by district and state. But before reporting the problem, let your youngster know that you plan to do so, as he or she could have concerns about "tattling" and might prefer that the problem be handled at home.

Other measures to try:

• Limit access to technology. Although it's hurtful, many children who are bullied can't resist the temptation to check Web sites or phones to see if there are new messages. Keep the computer in a public place in the house (no laptops in kid's bedrooms, for example) and limit the use of cell phones and games. Some companies allow you to turn off text messaging services during certain hours, which can give bullied children a break.

• Know your children's online world. Check their postings and the sites children visit, and be aware of how they spend their time online. Talk to them about the importance of privacy and why it's a bad idea to share personal information online, even with friends. Encourage them to safeguard passwords.

• Block the bully. Most devices have settings that allow you to electronically block emails, IMs, or text messages from specific people.

If your youngster agrees, you may also arrange for mediation with a therapist or counselor at school who can work with your youngster and/or the bully.

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