Kids can be mean.
It’s a fact of life we’ve all experienced. Gone are the days, however, when avoiding a bully meant ducking out of the back door at school. Thanks to personal computers, cellphones and instant messaging, it’s now easier than ever for children to attack each other, often anonymously.
Thankfully, experts say cyberbullying or electronic aggression, in which kids and even adults use electronic means to hurt someone, is still not that common, and many targets are able to shrug off the odd nasty text message. But for those who are cruelly or repeatedly targeted, the mental health effects can be severe.
Yet with so many different types of cyberbullying, ranging from online impersonation to e-mail hacking and distributing embarrassing materials about a person, it can be difficult for kids, let alone those trying to help them, to know how to respond and stop the 21st century bully in his or her tracks.
“Awareness about the issue is high, but awareness about what to do when it happens is mixed,” says Michele Ybarra, president and research director for Internet Solutions for Kids (ISK) and an adjunct faculty member at Johns Hopkins School of Public Health.
Surveys have estimated that between 9% and 34% of kids have experienced cyberbullying in some way over the course of a year, with about 16% targeted monthly or more often, according to ISK, a non-profit organization that aims to improve the health and safety of kids through research and Web site design consultation. While this kind of bullying likely has been happening since the Internet’s birth, experts say it really took off with the creation of social networking sites such as MySpace in 2003 and Facebook in 2004. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention now consider cyberbullying an emerging adolescent health concern.
There is no predictable profile of a cyberbully, nor of a cyberbully’s target. But there is some overlap between victims of traditional, or offline, and online bullying.
Research suggests that those on the receiving end of traditional bullying may be more likely to cyberbully as a form of retaliation. Kids involved in the more severe instances of cyberbullying also tend to have more psychosocial problems, exhibiting aggression, getting in trouble at school and having poor relationships with their parents, says Nancy Willard, an expert on cyberbullying and author of Cyberbullying and Cyberthreats. And while traditional bullying appears to peak in middle school and drop off as kids reach high school, cyberbullying tends to slightly increase among kids in high school, a trend researchers can’t yet explain.
Regardless of who is involved, the effects can be devastating. A 2007 ISK national survey of more than 1,200 kids ages 11 to 16 found that, of the 30% of children who said they’d been bullied in the last year, 13% reported it happened on the Internet. Of that number, one-third of kids reported that the experience was very or extremely upsetting.
Research is also beginning to show that just like traditional forms of bullying, cyberbullying can lead to anxiety, lower rates of self-esteem and higher rates of school absence, says Patti Agatston, a licensed professional counselor with the Prevention/Intervention Center, a student assistance program serving more than 100 schools in suburban Atlanta, Ga. At the extreme it can even lead to suicide, such as in the case of 13-year-old Megan Meier, who hanged herself after receiving hurtful messages allegedly from a neighbor pretending to be a teen boy.
One of the tricky things about helping cyberbullying targets is that they aren’t always willing to talk about the problem. Teens often cite a fear of having their Internet privileges revoked as a reason for keeping quiet, Agatston says. Kids who receive threatening messages in school may not divulge what’s happened for fear of getting in trouble, since many schools ban use of cellphones during the day.
To get around that problem, Willard recommends having a frank discussion with your children about cyberbullying before it happens.
“I want my daughter to feel comfortable with me,” Willard says. “I want her to know if she’s got a problem, she can talk to me about it and I’m not going to blame her, punish her or cut off her online access.”
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That means talking about how kids can try to resolve the situation on their own too. First off, Willard recommends encouraging your child to stay calm and avoid retaliating, which usually only makes things worse and, to an extent, turns the target into a bully. Kids can block someone from sending mean missives, whether via instant messages or a social networking site, and should issue a formal complaint with a site administrator if they’re being impersonated. If a child suspects someone is hacking into his or her e-mail account, he or she should immediately change passwords or even consider starting a new account altogether.
Of course, if messages threaten physical harm or other illegal behavior or are sexual in nature, kids should know it’s time to get an adult involved, says Agatston. She is hoping more schools will become proactive about cyberbullying, since even though the actions may take place off campus their effects spill over onto school grounds. Schools, for example, should have a counselor schooled in methods for dealing with this type of bullying, tip sheets on the topic available for parents and educators and address the issue in their handbooks.
“There’s this strange idea in some schools that if we talk about it, people will think we have a problem,” Agatston says. “The approach they should take is to say, ‘Let’s be preventative in nature, talk about it and help kids feel like they’re in a school where we care.'”
Don’t forget that kids who harass others are more likely to be harassed. While no one likes to point the blame at targets, some kids may not realize they’re being cyberbullied as a result of their own obnoxious behavior. That certainly isn’t true of every case, and it doesn’t justify bullying, but generally being nice to people is an important safety tip, Ybarra says.
While cyberbullying is relatively uncommon today, some experts say they expect the problem to get worse before it gets better. In the meantime, it’s up to kids, parents and teachers to try to prevent it and prepare to deal with it.
“As adults become more comfortable with the technologies kids are using, they’re having more of these conversations about cyberbullying,” Agatston says. “But I still think we have a ways to go.”
Written By: Allison Van Dusen