Remember that old childhood adage about sticks and stones? Times have changed, and conventional wisdom has proven that names can indeed hurt – even worse than physical blows. Though childhood is the traditional time for schoolyard bullies, it is during the teen years that the art of bullying is perfected. Gossip, pranks, notes and name calling become typical tactics used to intimidate and harass "outsiders." Technology has given bullies a new weapon in their arsenal, and unsuspecting teens receive electronic harassment, a silent persecution sent by e-mail, text messaging, cell phones and Web pages.
A Common Occurrence
Nicole Conway, a 17-year-old senior from Tigard, Ore., says that such bullying is a common occurrence. "It happens all the time," she says. "One person will get angry with another person and hand out their AIM name or cell phone number, and [the harassment] begins."
Conway, like many teens who are not on the receiving end of cyber bullying, doesn't seem to think it's that big of a deal. "I have only seen it actually lead to violence once," she says. "Usually it's just a lot of name calling and profanity but doesn't often go beyond that."
According to experts, however, cyber bullying is harmful – whether or not it leads to actual physical confrontations. Simon Johnson, author of Keep Your Children Safe on the Internet (McGraw-Hill Osborne Media, 2004), believes that one of the most destructive elements to cyber bullying is its invasiveness into an area where teens typically feel safe – their home. "This is a very serious issue," says Johnson, a former IT security specialist. "Unlike traditional bullying where teens can come home and be safe, cyber bullying occurs 24/7."
According to Johnson, cyber bullying is becoming increasingly popular with teens worldwide. It's thought of as an easy way for a tech-savvy generation to harass one another anonymously. There are many ways that teens bully one another depending on how technologically adept the bully is. Typically, teens can do the following:
- Create blogs (personal Web sites about their day-to-day life) and post information about other students. In this instance, it can be difficult for parents to take action against the Web site owner, as the ISP who hosts the Web site might be located in another country.
- Send threatening text messages by cell phone.
- Send threatening e-mail messages using free e-mail accounts.
- Send threatening instant messages.
Anyone Can Bully
Derek Randal is a former educator who now spends his time trying to stop school violence. He and his wife offer a variety of workshops created to make the community more aware of the problem and how to deal with it. He believes one of the most disturbing aspects of this crime is the anonymity. "Individuals who would never bully anyone face to face now are bullying using technology," he says. "It is an easy way to bully: no confrontation, very little chance of being caught and you don't have to see anyone's face."
Randal believes that teens are held back only by a lack of creativity. One of the latest ways to bully is with camera phones. Pictures taken on a camera phone are then altered to make the victim look different. Web sites are set up and can stay up for years with negative information about anyone.
Signs to Watch For
Parents should be on the lookout for the typical signs that a teen is being bullied: a lack of interest in school, a drop in grades, abrupt changes in friendships, isolation, etc. Remember that cyber bullying often takes place in the home, maybe even a few feet from where a parent is standing.
A telltale sign that your teen is being cyber bullied is if she becomes highly emotional or shows signs of stress after receiving text messages on her cell phone. If she is being bullied via the Web, then such an emotional state might occur when she is browsing a Web site or opening instant messages.
Steps to Take
Randal says that the first step in putting a stop to the bullying is open communication. "Please do not blame your child, take away their Internet access, phone or punish them for being the victim," he says. Too often parents believe these things will stop the bullying when in truth it just makes the teen feel as if he is being penalized. Your child needs you on his or her side to help with solutions.
"We do not want the child to withhold information because they're afraid of our reaction," Randal says. "Parents will want to teach their child to never give out personal information online, don't share your passwords or user names and never answer harassing messages." These messages should be saved as proof for the police, the Internet provider and the school administration.
Learn about and teach your teenager about blocking software for e-mails and instant messaging. If your teen is receiving text messages, then you can contact your phone company and report the matter. If there is a Web site that contains inappropriate or defamatory information about your teen, then you need to contact the ISP responsible for hosting it. Contact your own Internet service provider. They may be able to assist.
Remember to alert your teen's school to possible problems. Teachers could then watch out for groups of kids huddling around computers at lunchtime or after school. The IT department may also be able to review their Internet filtering logs to see if students are regularly visiting a specific Web site. If there are any suspicious sites that have suddenly become popular with students, then the sites should be investigated.
Cyber bullying doesn't have to destroy your teen's high school years. With communication, vigilance and know-how, technology can go back to being what it should be: a wonderful tool to inform, entertain and delight your teenager.