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The Wide, Wild World of Cyberbullying

It’s that time of year again. Gathering school supplies, new school clothes, looking forward to seeing friends at school and making new friends. And for some kids, anticipating the school bully.
Some adults feel that bullying is an inevitable phase of growing up, but this is not your grandfather’s bullying—to quote a popular saying. Technology has given birth to a new bully: The Cyber Bully. Cyberbullying is serious enough that the Center for Disease Control considers it an emerging public health issue.
Cyberbullying can involve sending mean, vulgar, or threatening messages or images over the Internet, or posting sensitive, private or false information about another person. The cyber bully might also pretend to be someone else in order to bully anonymously or intentionally exclude someone from a social group, online or at school.
Cyberbullying doesn’t stop at the school doors when the last bell rings. It is a shadow that follows kids everywhere—24/7. Today, instead of a written note passed around school, cyber bullies weapons of choice include text messages or images sent on a cell phone, Instant Messaging, emails, Internet chat rooms, blogs and social networking groups such as MySpace and Facebook to name a few. They take humiliation public, for the whole world to see.
“Cyberbullying totally affected my life because I can’t trust people with most things now, and I walk around every day hoping that it will never happen again.” This is from a 12 year old who was repeatedly cyberbullied. Not only did she endure hurtful words, rumors and social exclusion, but also serious physical threats.
Sticks and stones can break my bones but words will never hurt me.
In this Internet/cyber age, sticks and stones aren’t the only concern. Cyberbullying, sometimes referred to as online social cruelty, can emotionally scar a child for life, and carry dire consequences.
According to Molly Halady, an experienced K-12 educator with a Master’s degree and administrative certification, Parents shouldn’t be too complacent in thinking they have control over the Internet content their kids are viewing. “With a background as an art educator, and a background in computer animation as well, the problem is that kids know how to change the surface, the interface. So you can be standing here and I’m playing some polite game that I know I’m allowed to play, but as soon as you walk away I’m where I shouldn’t be,” Halady explained.
Susan Gillick, a PhD in Clinical Psychology with nearly 35 years experience working as a child Psychologist, said, “Kids are more computer and tech savvy than the parents are, and so the parents don’t know, or don’t even think: I should check on that page, or Google my kid’s name to see what turns up.”
Out of the home, this is also a quickly growing concern of school administrators and staff. How to deal with an issue of such tremendous importance? More and more schools, both public and private, list cyberbullying as one of their most troublesome issues—socially, academically, legally and in the interest of safety. Studies show that there is no statistical difference between public, private or suburban schools in the percentage of kids being bullied or cyberbullied. If anything, private and suburban kids, who may have more access to cyber technology report a higher incidence of cyberbullying.
There may not be a ‘cure’ for this social dis-ease, but there are many things a parent or caregiver can do.
Jeffrey Tricoli, FBI Supervisory Special Agent in charge of the Cyber Task Force in Buffalo states, “We encourage parents to talk to and ask their kids questions like, ‘Do you know the person [who has made threats]?’ And for parents to tell their kids, ‘Don’t become participants. Don’t get involved in the back and forth.’ Kids need to understand the consequences. Adults and kids have committed suicide, and there are serious consequences that kids and parents need to be aware of.”
Tricoli continued, “If kids feel scared for themselves or for their friends, they should talk to their parents, teachers or another adult they trust. They shouldn’t be in the position where they are afraid to go to school or interact with people. That is the essence of CB, you can’t keep it internal because you are going to potentially do more damage to yourself, so let someone know.”
Each year the FBI Cyber Task Force office works with the school districts by speaking to students, parents and educators about Internet safety, cyberbullying, sexual predators and other issues that kids may be facing as well as general computer security.
Parents and/or school administrators and organizations can arrange a presentation at their school by contacting Vanita Evans at the FBI media office. “Put your request in writing, stating the date and time, and we can work something out,” Evans said. Send those requests to: One FBI Plaza, Buffalo, NY, 14202. Phone contact: 716.856.7800.
When asked about the best way for parents to avert cyberbullying, Agent Tricoli says, “Communication! Parents have to understand the types of technology that their kids are using, understand how it works, and be aware of any type of threats or communication that may be coming across. It really comes down to parents talking with their kids, and not being overly aggressive in their responses. Sometimes parents go to the extremes and it’s really just a matter of understanding what the children are facing and communicating with them.”
Below are links to websites that can help you learn more about cyberbullying, signs and symptoms to look for to determine if your child is at risk, actions you can take and ideas for discussing internet safety with your children, as well as school administrators. A link to current Senate legislation regarding a bill called “Dignity For All Students” is also included.
It is never too early to become educated and aware of this issue. It is bound to touch your child’s life, or someone they know.

Resource links:

See this NY Times story for more about cyberbullying.

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