Schoolyard Bullies Branch Out Over the Internet

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Spam, malware, viruses, and identity theft -- these are the dangers most of us associate with the Internet. Faceless threats from somewhere in "cyberspace", that attack us anonymously.

But, as recent history has shown, users with children may be missing a much more dangerous threat closer to home: cyberbullying. It seems as if the age-old, schoolyard threat of bullying has caught up to modern technology.

A Harris poll conducted for the National Crime Prevention Center (PDF) found that 43% of teens reported being a victim of cyberbullying. Recently, the news has been filled with stories of young men and women who have committed suicide due, at least in part, to cyberbullying. Rutgers student Tyler Clementi and Massachusetts teenager Phoebe Prince are two of the most well known cases.

But what is it that makes cyberbullying so dangerous?

  • Anonymity -- Unlike ‘traditional' bullies, cyberbullies can hide behind the anonymity of the Internet. A pseudonym or message board handle can provide protection for a bully. According to the NCPC, almost 20% of those who were bullied were victimized by a bully pretending to be someone else.
  • Reach -- Victims of traditional bullying could escape behind the locked doors of their home. Cyberbullying can't be stopped by a dead bolt. According to the Pew Internet and American Life Project, 63% of teens go online daily, 75% of them own a cell phone, and 73% use social networking sites -- any and all of which provide cyber bullies with increased access.
  • Audience -- Cyberbullying is like anything else online: open to anyone and capable of going viral. The recent case of Jessi Slaughter shows the "distance" cyberbullying can reach across the net. With the speed of the modern Internet, one cyber bully can become a dozen or more within hours.

These factors all combine to give cyberbullying an added weight and, it would seem, more impact. In a case in England, a 15-year-old boy was so traumatized by only one experience with cyberbullying that he hanged himself.

Jennifer Petkov, who posted attacks against seven-year-old Kathleen Edwards saw the viral power of cyberbullying firsthand. When her story garnered widespread coverage, she was bombarded with death threats, harassing emails, and was forced to delete her Facebook profile in an effort to hide.

The danger and potential damage of cyberbullying is clear. So what can be done?

  • Pay Closer Attention -- The NCPC reports that 27% of parents of 13- to 15- year-old teens incorrectly believe they know what their children are doing online. Parents need to closely monitor their children's activity to guard against bullies - or against their children becoming a bully. This could include knowing a teen's passwords and account names or even becoming their friend on social networks.
  • Explain the Consequences -- According to the NCPC, 47% of teens believe there are no real consequences for cyberbullying. Parents, teachers, and caregivers need to explain to teens and younger children that their actions online have as much in the way of consequences as their "real world" actions. Share the stories of cyberbullying victims or some possible scenarios to get the discussion started.
  • Watch for Signs -- Victims of cyber bullies display many of the same symptoms and behaviors as traditional victims. Adults should be on the lookout for teens who become withdrawn, sullen, or suddenly spend much less time online. These can all be warning signs of a teen being bullied.
  • Model Behavior -- An unfortunate number of cyberbullying cases involve adults as the bullies. Adults, particularly those who act as caregivers for young people should always model appropriate behavior both on and off line. This includes not spreading bullying or gossiping texts, emails, or social network messages.
  • Talk -- Many victims of bullying don't report it for fear of reprisals, not just from the bully but from adults as well. Bullies can make young people afraid and feel that it's their fault they're being attacked. Letting children know that anyone can be a victim before bullying happens can make it easier for them to come forward later.

Cyberbullying is still a developing issue. With each passing generation spending more and more time online, the problem will only grow. Taking steps now to educate young people on the dangers may help prevent more tragedies in the future.

David A. Milman, Founder and CEO of Rescuecom

This story, "Schoolyard Bullies Branch Out Over the Internet" was originally published by Computerworld.

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