Bullying and Kids - The Facts
By Lisa Murphy
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No longer do you only have to worry about bullies at the mall or the school yard. Today, they have a new place to hang out: cyber space. Mean, threatening or humiliating taunts, rumors or photos sent via e-mail, instant message, text message, chat room or web pages or blogs are every bit as harmful as traditional bullying, if not more so. "At school you could potentially avoid them, but cyber bullying happens 24/7," says Dr. Robin Kowalski, a psychologist at Clemson University in South Carolina and co-author of the soon-to-be-published book, Cyber Bullying: Bullying in the Digital Age (Blackwell). The widespread reach of the Internet means that many more people are exposed, too.
In Kowalski's recent study of 3,767 middle-school students, 18 per cent reported being cyber bullied in the past two months. Even scarier, 55 per cent of those bullied didn't know who their cyber abuser was, which can result in considerable anxiety and paranoia. Most alarming for parents, however, is other research indicating that only 35 per cent of cyber-bullied kids tell their parents about the abuse. "The main reason they're not telling is they don't want computers or cell phones taken away," says Dr. Kowalski, who says that while that's the first reaction of many parents, it's probably not the best approach. Kids can't avoid technology, but parents can help them stay safe. Here's how.
1. Educate. Explain that sending mean, sensitive or private information about a person, or shunning someone from a group, is unacceptable behavior online and off. Help her understand what cyber bullying is with resources such as Stop Bullying Now. (While traditional bullies tend to be male, cyber bullies and their victims are overwhelmingly female.) Establish clear rules about computer and electronic-device use and abide by them. "Ninety per cent of parents say they have rules about computer use, but kids say they don't, really," says Dr. Kowalski. Restrict the amount of personal information that kids post online, for example.
2. Observe. Keep your child's computer in a common space and make it clear that you will check it on occasion, according to the recommendations of Stop Bullying Now. (Parental software filters are helpful, but in conjunction with other communication methods.) Talk to your child if she seems anxious or depressed, or seems afraid of school or other kids.
3. Advocate. Persuade your child to tell you if he is cyber bullied or suspects that someone else is being abused online, and remind him not to delete any evidence. Teach your child not to respond to cyber bullying directed at her (which may heighten the problem), but to speak up if another child is being hurt. (Research indicates that when kids intervene, bullying stops within seconds.) Reassure your child that telling won't result in his computer or cell phone being taken away. Encourage your child's school to establish a policy against cyber bullying, as well.
4. Respond. Print off any evidence of cyber bullying that you or your child sees. "If it's something upsetting, teach your child to turn the monitor off, not the computer," says Dr. Kowalski. Stop Bullying Now also suggests contacting the Internet Service Provider (ISP), web site or messaging company involved to identify the bully or to see whether the content violates their "Terms and Conditions" and can be taken down. Block future e-mails or calls from the cyber bully, if possible, or change your child's number or e-mail address. Talk to your child's school or the police, if necessary. Unfortunately, there are still few consistent, enforced laws in this area so it's usually up the parent to keep calling until the offensive material comes down. "They need to be very persistent," agrees Dr. Kowalski. Indeed, in the absence of reliable school, government and corporate policies on cyber bullying, the onus falls squarely on parents to protect their kids. "Parents can't be naïve," she says. Fight back and get informed with our bullying resources.