Cyberbullying: Is it Real?

Cyberbullying sounds robotic and surreal. But cyberbullying is real and sometimes deadly. And it is on the increase. Cyberbullying refers to situations in which someone uses a communication device or some other form of technology to harass, intimidate, threaten, exclude, humiliate, impersonate or harm another person. Bullies may use cell phones or computers, for example, to send damaging or threatening text messages, emails, photos or videos to other people. Even worse, they may post humiliating information about someone on public spaces such as Facebook, MSN, MySpace or YouTube.

Whereas nasty rumors spread in a classroom engage only a few children, malicious information posted on the Internet can reach thousands of people instantly. Victims live in a permanent state of alert, shame or fear, believing that everyone “knows about them” or hates them. Furthermore, because messages are typically sent anonymously, the victim doesn’t know whom to fear. Victims of cyberbullying have no place to hide. Bullies can find them anywhere.

Not all cyberbullying is intentional. An impulsive or emotional teen, for example, might retaliate for a perceived slight by sending an unkind message that, though intended as a joke, can have a devastating impact. Even unintentional bullying can ruin someone’s life and result in criminal charges.

Studies show that cyberbullying can lead to isolation, loneliness, disengagement, depression, suicide, violence and even homicide. Victims of cyberbullying may also perform poorly in school or drop out altogether.

Cyberbullying often goes unreported. Victims may tell friends, but studies show that only 12 per cent inform their parents or teachers, especially if the bullying is sexual or personal. Most victims fear that, if they tell, they will lose access to their cell phone or computer— tools that are indispensible to young people in maintaining a social network.

Parents who suspect that their child is a victim of cyberbullying should empower the young person to report it. Children should be made to feel safe talking to their parents, to peers and to experts, such as school counselors, who have resources and solutions. Parents should also assist their school’s technology teacher to create safety nets and monitoring systems.

How can adults prevent the damage done by purposeful harassment and thoughtless acts? The answer is “education.” Parents and teachers should pay attention to the websites that kids visit and the interactions that they engage in, establish guidelines and house rules for accessing the Internet, and learn about Facebook, MSN and other instant messaging tools. Most tools have enhanced security measures, cyberbullying policies and procedures for reporting abuse.

Knowing the symptoms of cyberbullying also helps. Children who are reluctant to use computers or electronic devices, who avoid discussing what they are doing on the computer, who look nervous or jumpy when they are receiving text messages or who display unusual anger, sadness or depression after using the computer or electronic device might be victims.

Parents can also combat cyberbullying by teaching their children empathy and awareness. Children need to understand the devastating impact that words and images can inflict.

Another way that parents can help protect their children against cyberbullying is to encourage them and their peers to become involved in student forums, participate in peer counseling and attend presentations about cyberbullying. Teens will talk to other teens, even when they won’t talk to adults. The bottom line is that parents need to stay involved in their children’s lives, keep avenues of communication open and teach themselves and their children to use technology and online communities responsibly.

For More Information

The following organizations are dedicated to educating parents, teachers and children about cyberbullying:

 More information about cyberbullying is available on the ATA’s website:

References

Suniti Bhat, C. 2008. “Cyberbullying: Overview and Strategies for School Counsellors, Guidance Officers, and All School Personnel.” Australian Journal of Guidance and Counseling 18, no 1: 53–66.

Kowalski, R M. 2008. “Cyberbullying: Recognizing and Treating Victim and Aggressor. Child and Adolescent Psychiatry.” Psychiatric Times 25, no 11: 45.