Cyberbullying is a uniquely contemporary problem. This article, part of a two part discussion of this Internet abuse, discusses what we as parents can do to protect our kids and prevent cyberbully attacks. Part II provides an overview of the issue and deals with the depth and effects of cyberbullying.
If you or your child is the target of cyberbullying you may feel that there is not much you can do to deal with it. Perhaps you think that technology seems to favor the anonymity of bullies. You may also think that the law is behind the times and the only way to deal with Internet bullying is to wait for the law to catch up with technology. There's no need to be so fatalistic about the issue. In fact there is much you can do to prevent and protect yourself and your family from cyberbullies.
Below, we cut straight to the quick and tell you what you can and should do about cyberbullying.
The Office of Justice Programs in the USA announced ways to deal with cyberbullying in a report released this month. The program is called Delete Cyberbullying and is targeted at teens to help them understand the role they can play in preventing cyberbullying. Suggestions for parents as offered by the program are as follows:
WiredKids.com and WiredSafety.org are two sites that have created online communities for kids to deal with all cyber safety issues including cyberbullying. Other sites operated by the same organization include Teenangels.org, InternetSuperHeroes.org and StopCyberbullying.org. Among other things, this organisation promises that it can help you fight cyberbullies by, for example, tracing the IP address of the abuser.
Among the findings of this group is the revelation that most young people think that cyberbullying is only threats of physical harm. No doubt there are degrees of severity and people need to recognize there is the potential for serious harm and in some cases, the need for serious action.
In addition, parents need to take a measured approach to the situation if they think their child is being cyberbullied. You need to not brush it off as a "sticks and stones" scenario but you also need to know how to go about defending your child without causing them embarrassment and making the situation worse.
Many, many people online - including teens - are not aware of how the things they say are interpreted. "Bullies" may in fact think that they are being funny, smart or simply cool. They may not know the extent to which the things they say and do are taken as hurtful or to what depth they are hurting others. As difficult as it is to believe and despite the fact that some cyberbullies are openly dismissive or defiant, they are children who do not fully recognize the impact of their actions.
There are many kids who are simply naïve about how their online writing is perceived by others, that there is no intonation on the Internet and that the addition of even a string of smiley emoticons does not negate the harm of foul or harsh words. Others take advantage of the Internet's anonymity in order to vent, also not realizing the effect this can have on others. All of these people need to be told what effect they are having on others and by engaging in abuse in any form they are in fact contributing to an abusive culture.
Stu Auty, president of the Canadian Safe Schools Network, has said, "There has got to be some education in this respect so kids can't go through their life and do damaging things without having some understanding of what that means. It's really quite profound."
If you keep your computer in a public space in your house, you can have a look in once in awhile to see what your child is doing online and how they are interacting with others. This is the simplest way to remain aware of any and all negative Internet activity in your house.
Among other recommendations:
If your child or anyone in your family gets abusive emails, don't delete them. Save them to a special folder or archive them (different email programs use different terminology). You want to remove it from the rest of your email activity but do not delete it. You want to save it in case you need to use it as evidence.
Most Internet service providers have abuse policies and they will delete accounts where there is a legitimate complaint of abuse (in the interest of protecting themselves, in fact). You can forward the abusive email to the provider's email address. If you can't trace the provider, there are software packages such as eMailTracker that can do this for you. You can also block an unwanted email address in most email programs.
Teach your kids how to end a conversation, thread or other exchange. An advantage to the Internet is that you can shut out people you don't want to give attention to. Uncomfortable with a conversation? Leave. Don't like someone? Find the "ignore user" link. Someone really bothering you? Find the "report abuse" button and use it.
According to MySpace.com's terms of service,
Users can report inappropriate content or behavior to MySpace, can directly report sexually explicit conduct to NCMEC’s CyberTipLine, and can easily "Report Abuse" in email, videos, forum posts and classifieds."
Facebook also has prodigious privacy settings that not enough users are aware of.
The most serious cases of cyberbullying often involve criminal activities such as hacking, password theft or identity theft. Your child needs to know that if he or she is the victim of anything like this, they have legal recourse. In any case like this, make sure your child is protected first, that they know that this is only a temporary problem and can be dealt with and lived through and gauge how they are handling the attacks emotionally. All "real world" anti-harassment laws can be applied to cyberspace.
Then get the law involved. In a case where you have to go to the police, make sure you get a hard copy of abuses and that an electronic version will be available to the police when you go to them. Create a screen cap of dynamic content such as social media site materials or emails. Don't know how to create a screen capture? (Instructions for Windows or for Mac.)
Software like Spectorsoft can be used to collect and store all electronic data necessary to report, investigate and prosecute a criminal case.
Never underestimate the profound effect of peer pressure on kids aged 10 to 17. If a child this age feels they are unliked or unwanted, the effect can be devastating.
Encourage your kids to call it out and do something. This generation believes in accountability. In the same way that they challenge you on your decisions, you want them to challenge their friends and all their peers to behave the way they do in the real world.
Finally, while there's nothing that can be done to save Jeff Johnston and Megan Meier, we can learn lessons from the past. It's going to be up to the Myspace generation to learn how to deal with the particular problems associated with Internet bullying. They must be encouraged to make changes to protect themselves and others from abuse. They must be taught to accept responsibility for their online behaviour and that of their friends. And they must be taught how to fully understand the dynamics of new technology to use and enforce the responsible, accountable use of those technologies. They need to be the ones to form the proper cultural attitude toward cyberbullying.