April 13, 2010
By Claire McCarthy, M.D.
Boston Children's Hospital
It seems as if stories of teens being cyberbullied to the point of suicide just keep coming. As a parent, these incidents are scary. But as the news begins to fade, the stories may also fade from your mind.
It's easy to think that:
- Cyberbullying won't happen to my teen.
- If it did, my child would tell me about it.
Don't be so sure about either one.
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Consider these frightening facts from the U.S. Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA), part of the Department of Health and Human Services:
- Cyberbullying doubled between 2000 and 2005 among 10- to 17-year-olds, and it continues to rise.
- More than a third of teens say they've had threatening or embarrassing things said about them through e-mail, text messaging, instant messaging, websites or chat rooms. This isn't surprising. Technology is embedded in our children's lives: In 2008, nearly three-quarters of teens had a cell phone (I bet that number is higher now), and more than half of teens have a personal profile on a social networking website like Facebook.
- 11% of students in grades six through eight said they had cyberbullied another person at least once in the last couple of months; 2% said they had done it two or more times.
- Twice as many girls as boys are victims and perpetrators of cyberbullying.
- According to a 2006 survey, only a third of teens who'd been cyberbullied said they told their parents about it. While some told a teacher, friend or sibling, one in six said that they told nobody at all. If nobody knows, nobody can help. Life can be miserable for the victim of cyberbullying; for some, like Phoebe Prince or Megan Meier, it's so miserable that they commit suicide.
This is not an issue that parents can let fade from their minds. This is something that parents need to learn about and confront.
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What Is Cyberbullying?
We usually think of bullying as physical (hitting, punching) or verbal (teasing, name-calling). With technology, children now have the means to threaten, intimidate or embarrass other children through e-mail, instant messaging, text or digital image messaging, web pages, blogs or chat rooms.
What makes this kind of bullying particularly powerful is that avoiding the bullies doesn't help. Cyberbullying can spread quickly to many people, and it can be done anonymously. Teens may even pretend to be another person as a way to embarrass the victim and make them look bad. This is easy to do online.
Many children don't realize they are being bullied or that they are doing the bullying. In fact, in one survey, teens said they participated in cyberbullying because they thought it was funny. And because much of the bullying is invisible to adults, it can be more difficult for children to recognize when it's occurring. According to another survey, 80% of teens said they didn't have parental rules about internet use or they found ways around the rules.
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What Parents Can Do
Check out the HRSA's website, Stop Bullying Now! It has lots of great information for parents and children, such as:
- Keep your home computer in a visible place.
- Talk to your child about cyberbullying. Encourage your child to tell you if he or she is being bullied, or if it's happening to someone they know.
- Make it clear to your child that you reserve the right to look at what they are doing online or in text messaging. Privacy has its limits.
If your child is a victim of cyberbullying, here is what the website suggests you can do:
- Encourge your child not to respond.
- Don't erase the message or pictures. They can be used as evidence.
- If at all possible, identify the cyberbully.
- File complaints with the cell phone company or internet service provider.
- Block texts and/or e-mails from the person.
- Contact the school, if the bully is a classmate.
- Contact the parents of the bully. They may have no idea what is going on.
- If the bullying is persistent, you may want to contact a lawyer. Filing a civil suit may be possible.
- Contact the police if:
- There are threats of violence
- There's extortion
- The messages are obscene or pornographic
- The behavior is turning into harrassment or stalking, or if it may be a hate crime (i.e. the victim is being targeted because of his or her race, sexual orientation or religion).
Your child may not want you to do these things; they might worry about retaliation, or that somehow people will think that they can't fight their own fights. But that's exactly the mindset that lets bullying continue.
Bullying needs to be brought into the open, and bullies need to have consequences for their behavior. It takes the whole community to stop bullying. To keep kids safe, we need to create a culture that stands up to bullies.
Don't wait for your child to be bullied before you do something. Talk to your child's school and to community leaders. Ask them what they are doing to prevent bullying. Find out how you can help. You just might save a life.
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Claire McCarthy, M.D., is an assistant professor in pediatrics at Harvard Medical School, an attending physician at Children's Hospital of Boston, and medical director of the Martha Eliot Health Center, a neighborhood health service of Children's Hospital. She is a senior medical editor for Harvard Health Publications.