“Sticks and Stones may break my bones,
But names will never hurt me.”
As children, many of us were taught similar rhymes, designed to help us learn that it didn’t matter if someone was mean to us – we could always turn the other cheek. By ignoring the bully and his friends, we disempowered them and they would become bored and move away. But what would you do if the bully was able to follow you where-ever you went? What if the bully was able to come into your home? What if they were able to rally dozens or more people to help bully and harass you? Imagine the horror, if they had the power to tell or show hundreds or thousands of people your most embarrassing secrets? What would you do?
Cyberbullying might not sound all that devastating, but it takes regular bullying and multiplies it over and over again. Your child is no longer being bullied by a single person, but an entire army of bullies – some who don’t even realize they are being mean and hurtful. In truth, with modern technology, cyberbullying has become a serious problem that can cause serious damage to your child’s mental health. Did you know that 1 in 5 children, between the ages of 11 and 19, have been the victim of a cyberbully? Even more frightening is that only 1 out of every 5 children who are being cyberbullied will turn to an adult about the problem.
What is a Cyberbully?
With today’s children having fully embraced the Internet and cellular phones as tools for socializing and networking, cyberbullying runs rampant. The cyberbully preys upon others by turning these tools against the user, posting damaging text or images to aggressively bully their peers. They can flame, send hurtful IMs or text messages, and can even create websites that are socially and emotionally devastating to their victims. Many children engage in cyberbullying without even realizing they’re doing it. They may think it’s funny or that it’s not affecting the target in a negative fashion, when it truly is. Sometimes, cyberbullying can even take a different direction and goad someone into doing something drastic, like harming others, simply by encouraging negative emotions.
The bottom line is that cyberbullying is a very damaging and dangerous practice. Our children need to be instructed, so they not only know how to spot cyberbullying, but also so they know what to do when they encounter it.. or when they find themselves falling victim to a cyberbully.
How Cyberbullies Hurt
Back when I was a child, bullies took our lunch money. They pushed us into the lockers as they walked past or they threw food at you at lunchtime. Sometimes, bullies came up and made fun of you in class – they stuck things on your back or in your hair. They wore you down and made it so you dreaded going to school.
Cyberbullies are even more dangerous, simply because there is no way of escaping them. Many teenage encounters with bullies turn into cyberbullying; where we could escape those that bullied us, today’s children find it far more difficult. Constantly bombarded by flames and harassing texts and emails, they withdraw further and further into themselves. Often, children will turn to the internet as a form of escape – but when they are cyberbullied, where do they have to turn?
Victims of cyberbullying often experience extreme bouts of depression and withdrawn or antisocial behavior. Some lose weight and seem to lose interest in their surroundings as they become more and more alienated from friends. Others may become angry and begin to show an increase in physical confrontations or they may turn to the internet as a way of sharing their anger and pain, posting venomous blogs and online journals. In extreme cases, some children can be goaded into extreme violence – taking their own life or turning upon others – sometimes with very dangerous results.
The Different Kinds of Cyberbullying
Flame Wars – Even as an adult, I’ve encountered this kind of cyberbullying. Having posted a blog about some exciting and fun things that I’d done, I was suddenly shocked to see a very nasty comment from an ex’s current girlfriend in my blog. Fortunately, I simply banned her, though I remember the feelings of intense anger and hurt. Why was she even bothering to read my blog? She wasn’t my friend. She had no business there. And, why did she feel the need to post her issues with me, rather than to send me an IM?
This is one of the ways that the cyberbully works – by attempting to inflame tempers in a public forum. In extreme cases, not only will they attack the victim, but they will rally others to post nasty comments as well – eventually driving the victim into silence or retreat, sometimes even forcing them from the forum altogether.
Online “Dissing” – Popular with school children, online dissing or denigration, consists of the bully spreading online rumors or gossip that harm the victim on a day-to-day basis. This can be something simple, such as a joke or rumor about an unpopular teen, to being something as elaborate as a full-scale website that’s designed for the sole purpose of poking fun at the victim. While we’re often tempted to look the other way or to try to convince our children that online barbs aren’t all that hurtful, imagine finding that someone had gone to all the trouble of creating a website about how much they disliked your child or how fat or ugly your child was. Now imagine your child’s pain at discovering such a thing – and having his or her peers laughing and teasing them about it. Such things can cause a child immeasurable amounts of pain.
Harassment – Harassment takes on many different forms, though the most popular ways of cyber harassment are through IMs (instant messages) and text messages, sent via cell phone. With many cellular companies allowing unlimited texting, a child’s cell phone can be bombarded with dozens (or more) mean or harassing text messages within minutes. By forwarding your child’s number or messenger ID on to others, an entire army of cyberbullies can flood a victim’s email, cell phone inbox, or even their computer screen within minutes. And this can go on and on, until someone intervenes and takes preventative measures to stop the harassment.
Cyberstalking – Moving hand-in-hand with cyber harassment, we must also touch upon the cyberstalker. This can be an angry ex-boyfriend/girlfriend, an ex-friend, or a random mean-spirited individual but, just because their threats are made online, it doesn’t make them any less frightening. Cyberstalkers can be just as scary and can be every bit as dangerous as a real-world stalker – particularly because they can cross that line into ‘real-life’ very easily. The cyberstalker bully can send frightening and/or threatening emails, instant messages or can even stalk their victim through various chat rooms.
Tricking and Outing – Another nasty strain of cyberbullies are the ones that trick your child into revealing potentially painful or embarrassing information about themselves – and then spreading these dark secrets all throughout the web. This can involve information about your child, such as their sexual preferences or a bad habit, or it can even involve family secrets. It can also involve embarrassing or sexually provocative images of the victim.
The trickster bully can either pretend to be your child’s friend while gathering information, or they can coax your child into giving them information through “anonymous” questionnaires and other sneaky means. Some even obtain access to the victims’ accounts and will sabotage them from within. There are even some cyberbullies that will go to the extent of highjacking the victim’s accounts and then impersonating them, further alienating the victim from their friends.
Exclusion – Cyber bullies can also hurt your child by excluding them from popular online chats or groups that they want to belong to. One of the most devastating methods of attack are ones which exclude the victim as it causes them to doubt themselves and generates paranoia. What’s being said about them in that chat room? Do all those people hate him/her? Even when your child pretends to not want to be a part of a group, being omitted can still eat away inside them.
Recognizing the Cyberthreat
One of the trickiest parts of dealing with cyberbullies is recognizing a cyberthreat. In a nutshell, a cyberthreat is anything that involves a direct threat or distressing material. This can range from outright anger and vulgar language that’s aimed at someone, to generalized statements that sound as if the writer may be considering harming themselves or someone else. A seldom-realized form of cyberbullying is the person that talks in a negative fashion, threatens suicide, and then logs off or refuses to answer correspondence. This often leaves the victim in a panic, believing they are helpless while their online friend might very well be harming themselves. While many don’t realize it, this form of cyberthreat can be just as damaging as an outright threat.
The hardest part about recognizing a cyberthreat is not going in the opposite direction and falsely accusing anyone and everyone of cyberthreats. There is a fine line between fantasy and reality on the web – discovering the truth is something that’s often quite tricky to do. For this reason, it’s important to encourage and support educating adults in how to correctly spot cyberbullying, as well as teaching our youth what they can do when they encounter a cyberbully.
Why They Stay Silent
Only one in five bullied children will turn to an adult and mention that they are being cyberbullied. The other four will keep their silence for various reasons – They may not feel that it’s severe enough to tell anyone about it, or they may feel ashamed by it. Perhaps they are afraid they will be told that they are over-reacting and that they should just ignore it or, in some cases, they have been threatened into silence. They may fear that the attacks will worsen, or that they may face a physical threat if they talk. Quite often, the children fear that they will have their cell phone or internet privileges restricted or taken away by the very people they turn to. The reasons they might not speak of it vary, so it’s very important to establish good communication with your child and to teach them what cyberbullies do and how to spot them. Most important, a parent needs to stress that they won’t be punished if they are being bullied, but that they do need to talk about it.
How to Avoid Cyberbullies
One of the best ways to help your child with cyberbullies, is to talk to them about risky behaviors and places where cyberbullies often lurk. For instance, stress to your child that – before they send a naughty or embarrassing pic to a boyfriend or their best friend, they remember that friends often argue and fight. Their friend might easily forward that pic off to all their friends without thinking about it… and some info that gets released on the internet is sometimes irretrievable. So, before they send a naughty or embarrassing pic, tell them to ask themselves if they’re comfortable with EVERYONE seeing that picture – if they aren’t, then they shouldn’t send it.
Some places seem to go without saying – such as known hate groups. Sexually-oriented chat rooms or teen chats can also run rampant with predators and cyberbullies. As tempting as they might seem to a young person, they are a risky venue and need to be avoided.
Is your child a gamer? Game-oriented chats and forums are another place that are often overrun by cyberbullies – people who want little more than to put others down, in order to feel better about themselves. Teach your child to avoid these places whenever possible and, if they do frequent them, to be sure to -never- give out any kind of personal information.
Here are some great tips to go over with your child:
1. Remember to be as nice to online people as you are to people you meet face-to-face.
2. Never share photos, secrets or anything else that could be upsetting or embarrassing if someone saw or found out (always ask yourself if you would get upset if the whole school found out about that).
3. Have your parents help you set up your email and IM accounts, IF you need them. Make sure NO personal information is visible to the public.
4. Your parents are the ONLY people who should know your password. No matter how close a relationship seems, you should never give your password to someone else.
5. Don’t send messages or IMs if you’re angry. Take a few and cool off before you talk – Not only will it prevent you from potentially cyberbullying someone, you’ll find that you also think much more clearly and will be better able to get your point across.
6. Don’t respond to or forward messages that are mean to you or to your friends. The only person who should see them is your parents.
7. If you know someone is a cyberbully, don’t open their texts or emails – and make sure to block them from your accounts. There’s no reason why you should have to read nasty or hurtful things. Tell your parents or a school official that someone is harassing you.
8. If you do get nasty texts or emails from someone, don’t delete them – Save or print these messages and show them to an adult. If the first adult doesn’t help, don’t be afraid to tell another. No one should feel threatened or belittled by cyberbullies – by doing this, you stop them from bullying you, as well as from bullying others.
It’s a never-ending battle, trying to keep your child safe in this modern world. One of the most important things that you can do is encourage communication between you and your child. Stress that, while the two of you might not always agree, you will always love them and will do your best to understand and help them. Together, you can help eliminate the risks of cyberbullies preying upon your family.
My own online experience, dealing with cyberbullies, threats and internet stalkers
http://www.stop-cyberbullies.com/ – How to spot if your child is a victim of online cyberbullies
http://www.stopcyberbullying.org/ – How cyberbullies attack