Communication tools such as cell phones and Web applications are becoming more sophisticated each year. And as use among high school and middle school students is constantly on the rise, these children are sucked deeper into the intensely emotional, overly dramatic, and often dangerous social world of school. Cell phones may seem like innocuous tools for making quick plans or dropping a quick note, but they can also be dangerous. As long as a cell phone or a computer is on, it can act as a sounding board—or worse, a megaphone—for the constant mood swings, gossiping, and social power games of the teenage social environment. This is the foundation of cyberbullying.
These days, problems students have at school don't end at the final bell. Constant text messages and instant messages continue to come in until kids fall asleep and return when they wake up. And with the press of a button, a rumor can spread exponentially to the entire school and even to strangers online. As anti-bullying advocate and expert Trudy Ludwig says, "Bullying has gone viral."
The issue of cyberbullying recently became national news when, in 2009, 15-year-old Phoebe Prince of Massachusetts suffered silently under an onslaught of verbal taunting and emotionally bullying, both in school and online. Thirteen year old Hope Witsell, a middle school student in Florida, was tortured by classmates after a topless picture of her was discovered and then forwarded via cell phone to the entire school. Hope subsequently suffered months of intense emotional abuse at school. Both girls eventually committed suicide to escape the emotional distress.
These tragedies and others like them have played out across the country. They signal a desperate need for parents and educators to reevaluate the common conception of bullying, paying special attention the role technology now plays in this dangerous behavioral practice.
What is Cyberbullying?
A recent article in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry states that cyberbullying is "an aggressive, intentional act carried out by a group or individual, using electronic forms of contact, repeatedly and over time against a victim who cannot easily defend him or herself." The electronic means of contact may include, among others:
- Instant messaging
- Text messaging on cell phones
- Digital photos sent via cell phone
- Social networking sites like Facebook or MySpace
- Web pages
Cyberbullying is likely to be combined with face-to-face bullying; more than 85 percent of those bullied online also reported being bullied at school. It's important to remember that cyberbullying is not inherently worse than face-to-face bullying, and many more children face more "traditional" bullying than cyberbullying, but it is a problem that comes with its own set of concerns.
The Anonymous Bully
You don't necessarily know who's bullying you when it's online or through text messages. Bullies can make themselves anonymous by using fake screen names or temporary email addresses or by texting from someone else's phone. "If a child is bullied by someone anonymous, they'll go to school and constantly be thinking 'who did this, who is it' and 'who else knows about this,' " says Trudy. "That brings cyberbullying to a more insidious level." A child who has been cyberbullied may become suspicious, paranoid, and socially anxious. Because of this anonymity, it takes little effort or guts to say something hurtful online. This can embolden a bully who may have been scared to do or say something face to face.
Instant and Viral
It only takes a second to forward a hurtful e-mail, text message, or image, which makes it all too easy for cyberbullying attacks to spread quickly throughout a social group, to the rest of the school, and even to the general public. If someone scrawls a mean message in the bathroom at school, only the people who see it would read it. But a message online can be posted on a website or emailed out to everyone in a matter of seconds. An embarrassing moment can similarly be amplified by its sudden availability to the world. Materials can be manipulated—cut and pasted in a way that inaccurately represents what someone said or looks like—for the purpose of emotional harassment. This makes cyberbullying harder to trace, easier to develop, and unpredictable in ways that face-to-face bullying is not.
Unlike face-to-face bullying, which tends to happen in school or other social environments, cyberbullying can follow victims around wherever they go. It can happen at any time of night or day. And because children often need their cell phone or computer for legitimate uses, it may be hard or even impossible to escape from a bully's torment. There is no safe refuge.
Also, because the messages never go away, cyberbullying creates a feeling of ongoing, unstoppable bullying. "Kids can read and re-read hateful messages on their phones and computers," says Dr. Swearer. "This can lead to feelings of hopelessness and depression."
The first step is to build awareness of the issue. Around 42 percent of school-age American children report being bullied or otherwise abused online or through other means of electronic communication, so it's a common problem. It is essential that parents remain vigilant because children are even less likely to report incidences of cyberbullying than they are traditional bullying. "Research shows that 58% of kids who have been hurt online don't tell an adult," says Trudy. "They're afraid of having their computer or computer privileges taken away." Parents need to look for signs, like:
- Avoiding the computer or cell phone
- Appearing stressed out when receiving text messages or other communications
- Avoiding conversations about computer or phone use
- Withdrawing from social life
- Declining grades and avoidance of school
- Lack of sleep or eating
- Any change in emotions and behavior
If your child has been bullied online or on the phone, don't take away their internet or phone privileges. Try to talk openly and calmly with your child about what happened. Tell them you are there to be their advocate. Approach a teacher or school official about the situation. Bullying is a community problem and requires a community solution. Learn more about how to prevent and address bullying in your school and neighborhood.
Tips for Children
Children who are being cyberbullied may feel helpless. It's important that they understand that cyberbullying is not okay and they don't have to put up with it. Here are few useful tips to share with your child about how to handle cyberbullying.
- Don't respond. Your reaction is what the bully wants—don't give it to them.
- Don't retaliate. Getting even just makes you a bully too and generates a cycle of aggression.
- Talk to an adult you trust. Talk to a parent, a teacher, or school counselor. If there isn't an adult you feel comfortable speaking to, try to report the behavior anonymously at school.
- Save the evidence. One good thing about cyberbullying is that the evidence can be saved and shown to someone who may be able to help
- Don't be a passive bystander. If you get a hurtful message about someone else, don't forward it along. Let the person who sent it to you know that what they're doing is not okay, or report the behavior.