My kids think I’m a ninny. If you ask Noah and Holly, I’ve missed the boat and the last big wave and definitely am not as cool as so-and-so’s mom. After all, she lets her children have Internet access in their bedrooms and I don’t.
I’ll just have to deal with being uncool. I may be not be as tech savvy as some parents, but one thing I do know for sure is that bad things can happen to good kids—even online.
Things used to be simpler. It used to be that wiping away the tears when something went bump in the night or even intervening when a playground bully needed a talkin’ to about covered it. These days, though, not only do we have to keep Internet pedophiles at bay, for Pete’s sake, but we must warn our kids about those faceless bullies that many kids encounter online or via text-messages: cyberbullies.
It’s enough to make this mom just wanna pull up the covers and pull the plug on all of this‘progress.’
My own kids haven’t experienced cyberbullying yet, but if statistics bear out it’s only a matter of time before they do. Did you know that 42 percent of kids in fourth through eighth grades report being bullied online and 58 percent never tell, according to I-Safe.org? Last month I wrote about bullying in general (now posted to my blog at ChicagoParent.com). I mentioned the tragic case of 13-year-old Megan Meier. This month marks the two-year anniversary of her suicide following a period of cyberbullying, perpetrated by an adult who posed as a teenage boy online. As in Meier’s case, cyberbullies usually know their targets, but because they can hide behind anonymous cyber-IDs online (which creates a sense of the"faceless bully”), their bullying behavior can be harsher than a playground taunt. Because there is greater‘distance’ between these bullies and their targets their inhibitions are diminished. Cyberbullying can also be more damaging because it can be so far-reaching: rumors and personal information can quickly be broadcast to many others with one swift click.
Another feature of this type of harassment is that the victim’s home feels less like a safe haven. Cyberbullies can reach their targets there, and virtually anywhere, with text messages to cell phones.
Signs to watch
Is your child already the target of a cyberbully?
Loss of appetite, difficulty sleeping, school avoidance or declining grades, diminished interest in friends or activities and a dramatic increase or decrease in time spent online or in cell phone bills are all potential warning signs. These can also be signs of depression, a potential side effect of bullying. Counseling should be sought if these symptoms persist.
So what’s a parent to do?
If you do nothing else, by golly, at least keep Internet access in a public place (never in your child’s bedroom) and supervise Internet use. WiFi wireless cards for laptop computers can make this a challenge, so bear this in mind when considering them.
Discuss Internet safety with your kids. Expect a lot of eye rolling and sarcastic comments. Teach children that Internet use is a privilege and remember you’re not likely to hand over the keys to the car without a few driving lessons and the same is true for cruising the Internet. There are lots of beautiful and exciting destinations online, but it’s easy to get lost and hazards are just one click away.
Teach your children to never reveal passwords or identifying information (teach them what identifying information is) and tell them to not share personal information or to write anything in e-mails or text messages they wouldn’t want their whole class to read. Teach them that their messages can be edited and forwarded to others and that their passwords can be used to send nasty or otherwise unflattering e-mails from their accounts.
Kids often don’t tell anyone about cyberbullying because they fear their parents will revoke Internet privileges, so make sure your children understand that bullying of any kind isn’t their fault.
Don’t forget to share information and tips with other parents, especially those in whose homes your kids spend time. Encourage your children to develop positive friendships and to befriend kids who are bullied, as bullies tend not to pick on kids with strong social supports. My favorite advice? Ramp up the rapport with your kids. Express curiosity about their interests and make one-on-one time a priority if it’s now freakishly rare. Then, they’ll be more likely to wave the white flag when they hit speed bumps along the information superhighway.
Tips for parents
•Tell kids to save and print evidence of cyberbullying.
•Tell them to tell you or another responsible adult.
•Block cyberbullies’ messages and e-mails.
•Report cyberbullying to your Internet service provider.
•Alert the police about any threats of harm.
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Jennifer DuBose, M.S., C.A.S., is a licensed marriage and family therapist in private practice in Batavia. She has been a clinical member of The American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy since 1995 and is a featured blogger at ChicagoParent.com.