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The Online Mom provides internet technology advice and information to help parents protect their kids, encourage responsible behavior and safely harness the power of technology in the new digital world. Social networking, photo sharing, video games, IM & texting, internet security, cyberbullying, educational resources, the latest on tech hardware, gadgets and software for kids 3-8, tweens and teens, and more.

Cyberbullying (Part 2 of 2)

What Parents Can Do to Reduce Cyberbullying Threats

Part II of a two-part article on Cyberbullying
by Joel D. Haber, Ph.D.

Cyberbullying will be a part of your child’s internet experience at some time in their lives. Your child will either be a target of it, be involved in doing it, or will observe cyberbullying among others. The reality is that no-one is immune. Even “well-adjusted” children can fall into nasty, negative behavior when talking online. The nature of online conversation allows users to write things they normally wouldn’t dream of saying if they were face-to-face.
As parents, the more you know about cyberbullying and talk about it with your kids, the more you can prevent it and not be caught unprepared. It is important to create an open, two-way communication environment with your kids in regards to these difficult and sometimes embarrassing cyberbullying situations.  Here are some tips to manage these issues as your children grow and their computer usage increases.

1.    Learn the language of the internet used by your children and their friends. This shorthand language is becoming more widespread among internet users and is even edging its way into the classroom.  It allows kids to communicate quickly and in groups – often in the security of knowing that parents and teachers won’t catch on.  Do you know the following text abbreviations: AYT, DIKU, IMO, KPC, MOSS, POS, WUF?  Check your knowledge against The Online Mom's IM & Texting Glossary!

2.    An Ounce of Prevention reduces the risk of your child being bullied or having your child bully others online by:

  • Reminding your child to not give out their full name or any personal information online, especially passwords, phone numbers, where they live, etc.
  • Tell them to never write or post anything that they wouldn’t feel comfortable showing to a close family member. It’s known as “the grandma rule”. If you wouldn’t want your grandma to see it, then don’t post it!
  • Do not respond to any email or IM from an unknown person.
  • Pick passwords that are not easy for someone else to figure out (no birthdays, pet names, etc.) Password privacy is mandatory - even for best friends! However, passwords should not be private to you. Protection of your child always comes first.
  • Ask your child to save any communication (IM, email, text message) that is mean, upsetting or makes fun of them or others.
  • Discuss the location of a computer - if you know your child well, and have an open, trusting relationship it may be okay to give them use of a computer privately.  Having a computer in an open space can also be a way of telling them that there are no secrets. This is a personal decision, best made by knowing the openness of your child and your ability to communicate with them effectively.

3.    Questions to ask your children about their computer use and any cyberbullying experiences (depending on age of your child):
  • Do you use instant messaging? Who do you talk to? Do you ever get any messages from people you don’t know?  What do you do when that happens?
  • Do you have a buddy list?  Let’s go through it together.
  • Do you know how to block people from sending you messages?
  • Which websites do you visit?
  • Do you have a blog?  Any pictures of yourself online?  Would you show me?
  • Do you participate in any message boards or chat rooms? Which ones? What’s your screen name?
  • Do you know what Cyberbullying is?  Have you seen that happen to someone? Have you ever participated in it? Has it happened to you?
  • How would you respond if someone were bothering you online?
  • Who would you go to if you felt threatened online?

Remember, being non-judgmental when speaking to your child is critical to the process of building a trusting relationship.

Should you spy on your child?

It’s one thing to read your child’s emails and private messages when you suspect there is a problem or when your child appears depressed or withdrawn.  Safety concerns always take precedence over privacy.  It’s quite a different matter when a parent disregards all privacy and spies on an everyday basis.  The only time I suggest you spy on your child’s online activities is when you have a real emotional or physical safety concern.  If this is the case, talk about it first with your child.  If they think you’re spying without having that initial conversation, they will lose all trust and that is very difficult to win back.

Our goal in parenting is to build trust and bridges so they talk to you when serious things happen.  A blatant disregard for their privacy will push them to trust elsewhere.  Let’s not make that mistake.

Social Networking Sites for Teens

These are the hottest places for your children to be and younger and younger kids are finding these sites.  Facebook is now in the high school realm, and other sites like Friendster.com, Xanga.com as well as the still-popular MySpace.com are but a few of the sites in the burgeoning business of social networking.  Social networking is here to stay, so you need to have a conversation with your child about their activities on these sites, and whether they have a blog or online journal.  Ask to see their page as an opportunity to create an open dialogue together. To check if your child has a MySpace account, go to http://search.myspace.com and then type in your child’s name, email address or school.

Having a profile may not be a problem, unless your child is giving out personal information, posting provocative photographs or using their page to bully others. Use these opportunities for discussions with your child, rather than making them confrontational. You can also put up your own MySpace page and require that your child put you on their “friends” list which allows you access to their page.

How to Handle Cyberbullies

The best response to cyberbullies is no response at all! Cyberbullies want a reaction, so it’s best to tell your child not to respond in any way. If your child insists on responding to someone, they can say “Stop writing, I’m not interested”.

Other actions to take:
  • Block on your child’s account from the person sending hurtful mail, so they cannot contact you again. Many hosting sites have this feature.
  • If there is repeated cyberbullying, change your child’s email address or screen name, only giving it out to trusted people.
  • Regularly search for your child’s name using Google or one of the other search engines. This will help you see if they are on any sites you don’t know about, maybe leaving themselves open to abuse.
  • Forward emails to the cyberbullies email host.  Most companies now have “contact us” or “about us” links to report such abuse.
  • Contact the website host if any bullying comments or pictures of your child show up on a website and ask them to be taken down.
  • Notify the school of any problem your child may be having, if any of the perpetrators go to the school or if you feel your child is not safe from an online situation.
  • Find out other information about cyberbullying through volunteer organizations:  www.haltabuse.org; www.cyberangels.org, www.wiredsafety.com

The cyber-world is here to stay, and with that will come cyberbullying.  As parents, you have a great opportunity to communicate with your kids by learning their language, and finding out what they do online. The internet provides us with an opportunity to communicate with our kids on their turf, so don’t turn a blind eye. Get in the game with them; be interested in what they are doing online and spend time with them while they are there. We want our children to trust us, so they turn to us first when they get into a problem situation.  After all, isn’t that what good parenting is all about?

Part I of this article appeared on Thursday, September 18, 2008.

Joel Haber is a Clinical Psychologist and has devoted more than 20 years in practice to better parenting and helping children, teens and adults lead more productive lives.

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