Bullying has spread from the playground to the Internet.
Fifteen-year-old Mary Ellen Handy and her best friend, Gretchen,(*) were interested in the same boy. When he chose Mary Ellen, Gretchen started saying terrible things about her friend. Then Gretchen took her anger one step further: "She started an online campaign against my daughter," says Mary Ellen's mom, a teacher in Ridgewood, New Jersey. "She sent e-mails saying 'You think you're so great,' and it spread to other girls."
Worse, Gretchen posted unflattering, doctored photographs of Mary Ellen online. And she fired off electronic messages that made it seem as if Mary Ellen were gossiping about her classmates. Mary Ellen showed the messages to her mother, who couldn't believe her eyes: "I watched as girls instant-messaged her, 'Oh, what you wore the other day was so stupid.' It was horrible." The harassment got so bad that Mary Ellen had to get prescription medication for stress-related stomachaches.
As a parent, you probably worry about your kids stumbling across sexually explicit material on the Internet or meeting the wrong person in a chat room. Now there's another, perhaps less obvious threat to be concerned about: online bullying, or cyberbullying, as it's often called. Up to 80 percent of kids between the ages of 10 and 14 have been involved directly or indirectly, according to Parry Aftab, executive director of WiredSafety.org, an online safety group. "It could be your kid's head posted on the body of a porn queen," she warns.
What is Cyberbullying?
Unlike the traditional school-yard thug, a cyberbully hides under the cover of a screen name. Anonymous bullying isn't new--slam books, in which kids write nasty things about each other, have been around for years. But today's technology allows rumors to spread further and faster than ever. Consider the recent case of a 15-year-old boy who videotaped himself pretending to be a Jedi warrior, using a golf club as a light saber. When the video was stolen by classmates and posted online, this innocent act of self-expression turned into a phenomenon: It has been downloaded over a million times. The boy had to switch schools and see a psychiatrist.
Last year, a classmate tormented Sarah Konior, 15, from Bay Shore, New York, over instant-messenger. "She'd call me 'ugly' and say mean things," says Sarah. "She told me my bangs were 'so fifth grade.' I'd think about what she said all the time. It brought my self-esteem down a lot." Sarah finally told her mother, who was shocked by the virulence of the messages. "The things this girl said were perverted and graphic," says Sarah's mother, Christine, a stay-at-home mom. Eventually, the harassment stopped on its own, but Christine now limits the time her daughter can spend online.
Girls often use different techniques than boys do. "When girls are angry, they don't confront each other face-to-face," explains Rosalind Wiseman, author of Queen Bee Moms & Kingpin Dads and cofounder of a nonprofit group that includes a cyberbullying-prevention program. "Cyberbullying unfortunately fits in well with the way girls communicate their anger."
How do I know if my child is a target?
Hopefully, your child will come to you. But if she isn't forthcoming, pay attention to her behavior when she's at the computer. If you notice that she's often upset, ask what's going on. You can also go to the Internet yourself. Using the search engine Google, enter your child's first and last name in quotes to see if there is anything posted on a Web site. Another option: Use Google.com/alerts to set up a search using your child's name. You will then be notified by e-mail whenever that name appears online. "If there's a public posting, you will spot it right away," says Aftab. "It allows you to take action before the whole school is involved."
What should I do?
Parents should resist the temptation to let their child respond to the bullying online. And they should not do so themselves. "That can just make it escalate," cautions Susan Limber, Ph.D., a psychologist at Clemson University. Let your child know you're there for her. Then make sure her instant-message "buddy list" is limited only to people she knows and block all other incoming messages. (If you're not sure how to do this, go to your browser's Help menu and type in the words buddy list or block messages.) Save the offending messages to your hard drive. To trace the perpetrator, your Internet service provider (or an anti-cyberbullying group) will want "live" communication, not just a printout. You can also buy products, such as Spector-Soft Computer Monitoring Software, that will allow you to identify the culprit yourself.
What will the school do?
More schools are adopting appropriate-use Internet policies. If your child's school isn't up to speed, raise the issue with administrators. A course can easily be added to an existing bullying intervention program.
Mary Ellen's mom approached the dean of students at her daughter's school. The dean wanted to help, but when Gretchen was confronted, she denied everything. Later, she mocked Mary Ellen for having gone to her "mommy." It wasn't until some older classmates on Mary Ellen's soccer team told Gretchen to back off that the harassment stopped--which suggests that kids aren't just the source of the problem but a key part of the solution. Now a high school junior, Mary Ellen advises others on responsible Internet use as an FBI-trained WiredSafety.org volunteer. "It feels good to help other people," she says, "and to let them know that someone has been through what they're going through."
Teaching your kid net etiquette
• Explain that "we don't say anything on the Internet that we would not say directly to someone's face," advises Patti Agatston, a counselor with the Cobb County School District in Marietta, Georgia.
• Emphasize that e-mail is not private; a mean remark can easily be forwarded.
• Remind your child that, because e-mail and instant-messages don't include facial expressions, communication can be misinterpreted. "I could kill you!" said in jest may seem different online.
• Stress that passwords should never be shared; someone else could send messages from your child's account.
• Caution against joining in on bullying; voting on a Web site with a poll for the ugliest kid in class is just as bad as creating the poll in the first place.
- Picker,, L. (march 2006). Five Principles of Net Etiquette. Good Housekeeping, 242(3), 115-118.
Reflection Exercise #8
The preceding section contained information about the new danger online. Write three
case study examples regarding how you might use the content of this section in
What percentage of kids between the ages of 10 and 14 have been involved in cyberbullying? Record the letter of the correct answer the .