The horrifying results of bullying of all kinds has made the news repeatedly in the past year.
In February, Phoebe Prince, 15, hung herself after alleged repeated bullying at her high school in South Hadley, Mass. In October, Tyler Clementi, 18, jumped off the George Washington Bridge after his college roommate allegedly streamed online his sexual encounter with another man. In the two weeks following Clementi’s death, three more teenagers committed suicide–all of them after alleged bullying regarding their sexual orientations.
The statistics alone are grim. Twenty percent of students report being bullied; among gay and lesbian students, that number reaches 90 percent. When students are bullied for an extended period of time, they tend to withdraw from activities and friends they once liked, their grades slip dramatically and they can become severely depressed.
Fortunately, many state legislatures have quickly created laws to criminalize cyberbullying. Forty-five states now have anti-bullying laws, and many states also mandate school districts to teach students about all kinds of bullying. Teachers are trained to look for signs of all bullying in their students and respond accordingly–whether to the students’ parents, school administrators or even the police if necessary.
The challenge, though, is that the age-old problem of bullying is now exacerbated by new technologies like texting, emails, instant messages, blogs and social networks. Called cyberbullying, this kind of bullying can be missed by adults who aren’t digital natives and don’t understand how to use these new platforms. They may not realize a child is being stalked in a chat room, a middle school student is being harassed through Google Chat or a teenager is being libeled on Facebook.
To prevent cyberbullying, parents in particular need to be pro-active. If you are a parent, here are tips you should keep in mind:
1. Understand how a new technology works before letting your child use it. This holds true for smart phones, instant messaging software, blogs and social networks. Learn how your child will use it, who he/she will communicate with and what information he/she could potentially share.
2. Always set up privacy settings on any new technology. My Mobile Watch Dog lets parents monitors the texts, emails and phone calls their kids’ cell phones are receiving. Net Nanny is a software that can be downloaded onto a computer and can schedule Internet access, block social networks, stop inappropriate chats, stop illegal file sharing and monitoring where children are going online. Social networking sites like Facebook and MySpace have many privacy settings themselves. To understand how to set Facebook’s privacy settings in particular, watch this segment 435 Digital recently did with ABC-7 in Chicago.
3. Talk with your child about cyberbullying. Encourage your child to tell you immediately if he or she is being harassed online or contacted repeatedly via email or cell phone by an unwanted person. Also explain to your child that cyberbullying is harmful and unacceptable behavior. Be sure to outline your expectations for what is responsible online behavior and make clear what the consequences are for inappropriate online behavior.
If a child is being cyberbullied, you can look for certain signs. As with any kind of bullying, your child might become more withdrawn from favorite activities, school subjects and friends. With cyberbullying in particular, your child may spend increased amounts of time online or using his or her cellphone. He or she may turn off the computer or put away a cellphone when you are present. Alternatively, he or she may stop using computers and cell phones all together.
If you suspect your child is being cyberbullied, follow these guidelines from Stop Bullying Now.
1. Encourage your child to stop communicating with the cyberbully.
2. Do not erase any photos, video or texts–you’ll want to keep all evidence. Take as many screenshots and print them out if possible. Cyber Bully Alert is an online software the lets children using computers automatically alert their parents when they are being harassed online. As soon as the child presses a button, the software takes a screenshot of the computer and immediately alerts the parents via email or text.
3. To have content removed and/or ban a user, contact the website, your email provider, cell phone provider. They have protocols in place to handle this situation.
4. Try to identify the cyberbully if he or she is anonymous. Your Internet Service Provider (like Comcast or AOL) should be able to track them. However, if the cyberbulling is criminal–or you suspect it is–contact the police and ask them do the tracking.
5. If the cyberbully is another student or the cyberbullying is taking place on school computers, contact your school board. They also should have guidelines in place for handling this situation.
6. If you know who the cyberbully is, consider contacting his or her parents. It’s important to do this with caution, however, because parents can react negatively to accusations about their own child. You should not contact parents face-to-face. Rather, put it in writing and show them evidence of the cyberbullying. You’ll want to hold on to all written communication with the parents of a cyberbully should you need more evidence later.
7. Talk to a lawyer if necessary. Or, again, if you suspect the cyberbullying is criminal, contact the police immediately.
To be sure, technology like blogging and social networks can combat bullying. Just read the incredible story of Katie Goldman, 7, who was bullied at her school in Evanston, Ill. for being a girl with a Star Wars water bottle. Her mom blogged about the bullying on ChicagoNow and within days, her blog post went viral among Star Wars fans worldwide. In December, more than 30,000 people wore Star Wars-themed clothing in support of Katie.
Katie told the Huffington Post that she’s happy “so many people are standing up for me.”