Cyberbullying

Sadly, thanks to the Internet and other modern technologies, kids have powerful new ways to make each other miserable. For kids who may not have fully developed the sense of morality and empathy that grownups are supposed to have (but don't always!), the Internet can make meanness far too tempting. On the Internet, you're not standing in front of the person you're hurting. You can do it from a distance - perhaps along with a group of kids egging each other on to ever-higher levels of rottenness.

Cyberbullying takes all too many forms. Kids send each other nasty messages... insult each other on social networking sites, blogs, and public web sites... post embarrassing or revealing pictures of other kids... forward emails that were intended to be private... spread rumors and accusations... impersonate their victims and start fights with others... you name it, it's happened. The question is: what can you as a parent do to prevent it, stop it, or limit the damage it does to your child. Here are our recommendations:

Give your child practical guidelines for how to deal with conflicts and cyberbullying online. For example, teach the "Stop, Block, and Tell" method:
  1. Stop what you're doing and take a deep breath: do not answer or get into an argument online
  2. Block the person who's harassing you - or example, using your IM service's blocking feature
  3. Tell a parent or another adult you trust
Make sure your child never, ever shares a password or other personal identification that could allow a cyberbully to impersonate them.

Google your kids. If someone's posting derogatory information about your child on a public web site, you need to know about it - and the Google search engine may well find it.

If you find your child is being cyberbullied, support your child. Don't blame them for being cyberbullied, and don't ignore it as harmless. Let them know you know it hurts.

But try not to overreact: your child may be afraid of involving you because he or she is afraid you'll blow a gasket and make things even worse.

Do tell your child's school guidance counselor, so he or she can keep an eye on your child's emotional state and interactions with fellow students. There's only so much a school can do about "free speech" happening outside the school's walls. But you can and should expect your child's school to educate children on cyberbullying and stand strongly against it wherever they do have authority: for instance, on the grounds, and on their own computers.

If the cyberbullying involves threats of physical violence, an immediate and strong reaction is needed: tell your local police. Bring printouts of the threats in question. But be aware that these printouts aren't by themselves sufficient proof for the police to charge a crime, if that becomes necessary. The police will need to carefully capture their own evidence and trace its source - and that needs to be done quickly, before the evidence is routinely deleted. Not all police departments know how to track cyber-harassers. If they need help, a volunteer organization, WiredSafety.org, may be available to assist at no charge.

Don't forget that for every cyberbullied child, there's also a cyberbully - and most cyberbullies don't see themselves that way. They think what they're doing is harmless. Make sure your child knows what cyberbullying is, and that you won't tolerate them doing it. Treating others with respect should be the first ground rule for the privilege of having Internet access, IM accounts, a MySpace page, email, or a cellphone.

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