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Risk Factors for Cyberbullying

By Paul Donahue, Ph.D.

Adolescents that run into difficulties online often have personal situations that make them more vulnerable to being participants in or victims of cyberbullying. To assess their children's level of risk, parents should determine if their children display any of the following signs or symptoms:

1.    Impulsive Behaviors
Kids who are impulsive tend not to think before they act. They have a hard time hitting the 'pause' button, and often race right from "That's a cool idea" to jumping into behaviors without any in-between steps. Most teens are prone to this kind of thinking, but certain kids have a longer history of springing into action without considering the consequences. The Internet allows them to turn thought into action at lightning speed, and impulsive teens are more likely to say or do something online that they will later regret.

2.    Risk Taking
Although the teen years almost always involve experimenting, some kids are naturally prone to pushing limits. They're often the first to try alcohol or drugs, or to take physical risks for the sheer thrill of it. They love stimulation, and the internet provides them endless possibilities to explore and try new things. Much of this can be harmless, but kids with a predisposition to taking risks are likely to test the boundaries of what is socially acceptable online, and can put themselves and other kids at risk with inappropriate chatter about sexual exploits, violence or bullying behavior.

3.    Social Insecurity
Adolescents are all concerned about their social status and where they stand in relation to their peers. Kids who are insecure are more likely to raise the level of competition online, and may go too far in trying to one-up their classmates or friends. This type of jockeying can be common in the "popular" crowd and other groups, and is more prevalent in school environments that encourage intense competition and achievement.

4.    Isolation
Teens that don't have many solid connections to other kids may turn to social networking sites and chat rooms to re-invent themselves and to develop friendships. They may try on new identities in the hope that they will seem more appealing to their peers or to strangers they meet online. Lonely adolescents can sometimes let their guard down, leaving them vulnerable to being led on or humiliated by more savvy or manipulative classmates or adults. Alternatively, kids who are isolated may view the Internet as a place to exact revenge, and to strike back against kids who have slighted them in the past.

5.    Depression
Adolescent depression is often dismissed as normal "teenage blues," but many teens struggle with more serious feelings of hopelessness and worthlessness. Depressed teens may use their profiles or chat room discussions to expose their vulnerabilities in the hopes of getting reassurance or support from their peers. They may find that some solace if their friends reach out to them, but this well-intentioned advice should not substitute for other forms of intervention or counseling. If their feelings are dismissed or ridiculed they may sink further into despair, and may become an increased risk for suicide or other means of acting out.
6.    Reaction to Significant Life Events
Kids who are living through difficult times often experience powerful and raw emotions that are not easily contained in online discussions. Parents' divorce, a death in the family, a recent move, a bad break-up or school failure can all lead to teens feeling overwhelmed and out-of-sorts. During periods of intense emotion kids are less likely to be thinking clearly, and to have limited judgment and decision making capacity. They are more likely to be influenced negatively by their peers or adults during Internet chats or to be swayed into engaging in risky behaviors they would not ordinarily consider.

Paul J. Donahue, Ph.D. is a clinical psychologist and the Director of Child Development Associates in Scarsdale, NY.  He is author of Parenting Without Fear: Letting Go of Worry and Focusing on What Really Matters. He has been profiled by The New York Times and has appeared in Parents Magazine, Good Housekeeping, and Family Circle, as well as on The CBS Early Show.

To learn more about his work, visit www.drpauldonahue.com

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