Confronting the Dreaded Cyber Bully

By Meghan Vivo

Sean has been receiving anonymous threatening emails for weeks. He doesn’t know why or where they are coming from, but the sender has been relentless in their attacks.

A student is spreading vicious rumors about Katie on the school bulletin board. None of the rumors are true, and all are incredibly hurtful, but the other students believe the false reports and have ostracized and humiliated her as a result.

A cruel fake profile has been uploaded to MySpace about Jennifer, using her name, photograph, and contact information. She is now receiving crude and offensive messages from site visitors who think her profile is real.

All of these people are victims of cyber bullying. Thanks to the Internet, we all have to be vigilant about the types of people we welcome into our homes. In addition to predators, identity thieves, and criminals, we have to protect our children from bullies that attack in cyberspace.

The Impact of Cyber Bullying

More and more children and teens are becoming victims of cyber bullying. In its most common forms, cyber bullying involves sending cruel instant messages or emails or posting insults or embarrassing comments about a person on a website, chat room, message board, social networking site, cell phone, or elsewhere.

Whatever form it takes, cyber bullying causes feelings of fear, isolation, and humiliation among its targets, perhaps even more so than traditional bullying because cyber bullying can happen 24 hours a day, in every location, and in any number of ways.

Research has proven that bullying takes a devastating toll on its victims. Children who are bullied are more likely than nonbullied children to be anxious, depressed, and to suffer from low self-esteem. Bullied children are also more likely than other children to think about taking their own lives.

Warnings Signs of Cyber Bullying

Many teens try to hide the shame, embarrassment, and pain of being the latest target of a cyber bully. Keep an eye out for the following warning signs of cyber bullying:

• Your child is upset or angry during or after using the computer, Internet, or cell phone
• A sudden change in friends or activities
• A drop in academic performance
• Disinterest in school or refusal to attend classes
• Your child has been a target of bullying at school
• A change in mood in which your child appears sad, depressed, lonely, or isolated
• Your child is engaging in cyber bulling against other children

Tips for Dealing with a Cyber Bully

If you’re concerned that your child is being threatened or bothered by a cyber bully, take action before lasting damage is done. Set up guidelines around the use of the Internet and technology in your home, and talk with your child about the types of behavior that should be reported to parents or other adults.

The following tips will help arm you in your fight against bullying:

• Save copies of messages, web profiles, and offensive comments so that you can offer these as evidence if and when the time comes to talk with school officials, police, or an attorney.

• If the offense is a first-time occurrence and relatively minor in nature, try to ignore, delete, or block the sender. Resist the urge to answer emails, respond to posts, or participate in a chat room exchange; instead, ignore the bully and get help from parents and teachers.

• Speak with parents, teachers, or another trusted adult as soon as the cyber bullying begins.

• Report offensive behavior to your Internet service provider (most offer a range of parental controls) or the site’s webmaster (often found under the “help” section of many websites). Social networking sites like MySpace and Facebook are aware of the problem of cyber bullying and may take down offensive profiles.

• Do your own research. Make sure you have access to your child’s MySpace or Facebook page so that you can occasionally monitor the comments and profiles. Also search your child’s name on an Internet search engine and see what results come up.

• If your child is being bullied by a fellow student, set up a meeting with the school counselor and share the evidence you have gathered.

• If the problem isn’t resolved and the bullying is ongoing, severe, or worrisome to you, contact the bully’s parents and share the evidence you have gathered.

If these steps do not resolve the cyber bullying, or the bully or bully’s parent is unresponsive and the behavior continues, contact an attorney or report the bullying to the police. They may be able to take action if the cyber bullying involves threats, comments that urge suicide, intimidation, or sexual exploitation.

Bullying can be devastating to a child or teen. If your child seems depressed, anxious, or withdrawn or has made comments about suicide or self-harm, seek professional help immediately. Talk to the school counselor or a therapist, or seek out information about the dozens of therapeutic boarding schools, wilderness programs, and residential treatment centers for teens that can help rebuild your child’s self-esteem and develop greater coping and distress tolerance skills. If your child is the one doing the bullying, these programs can get to the bottom of any underlying anger issues or other emotional or behavioral problems.

Cyber bullying is not harmless fun and can cause deep emotional scars that last a lifetime. Because a cyber bully has the luxury of remaining anonymous and can access your child in cyberspace whenever they choose, with limited risk of being caught, cyber bullying is a particularly worrisome trend.

Whether your child is the victim of cyber bullying or the aggressor, there are things you can do to stop the harassment. It’s up to you to recognize the signs of a problem and do everything you can to make life better for your family and those around you.

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