A number of high-profile incidents in recent years have demonstrated that cyberbullying — through email, texts or social networking sites like Facebook — can lead to grave consequences if not handled properly.
On Oct. 10, a 15-year-old girl in Port Coquitlam, B.C., took her own life a few weeks after posting a YouTube video about the bullying she had experienced at school and online.
Two years ago, an 18-year-old student at Rutgers University in New Jersey student jumped from a bridge after his roommate used a webcam to spy on him.
In 2008, a Missouri teenager hanged herself weeks before her 14th birthday after being the target of a hoax on MySpace.
Alexis Moore, author of A Parent’s Guide to Cyberstalking and Cyberbullying, says that stories like these happen far too often. She spoke with CBC News about what parents can do to navigate the dark world of online bullying.
Q: How is cyberbullying different from traditional bullying?
A: The first thing is understanding it’s just as serious as traditional bullying — without the black and blue marks, without your child coming home with their backpack ripped off their shoulder or something like that. Parents tend to think a little less about non-physical activity being this harmful.
That’s something that I try to educate and remind law enforcement and our public officials about: This is just as deadly and lethal an assault as your traditional battery. It’s using technology to harass and to manipulate and often destroy a child.
Q: How can parents approach the topic of cyberbullying with their children?
A: The best tools a person can use are just what’s out there already. Finding that avenue where there may be a cartoon or a show or an advertisement on TV or the radio [about cyberbullying]. It’s a great way to open up that conversation with your kids.
What I always say is, let them tell you. So [ask] open-ended questions and act stupid. Parents can become actors and actresses. "Tell me about cyberbullying. It was just on this radio ad. Is this something that goes on in your school?" It’s amazing how kids will tell you.
Q: Are there signs parents can watch for to recognize if their child is being bullied online?
A: The first one that most notice is they have an unusual response to technology. So, for example, if a youth is using a video game or has a computer or cell phone that they usually love and were always running to it, you will see a different reaction. A happy kid that used to be excited about using technology is now not excited. It may be subtle. They’ll have a different response to the technology because they know it’s now a weapon.
Another is personality changes. We often will just consider our child as a teenager having a bad day or just being cranky, not realizing that this is perhaps something more, and it may be due to cyberbullying. So I always say, look for those personality changes and please don’t write them off, because you can save a life.
Q: If a child is being bullied, what can he or she do to make it stop?
A: Speak out. Number one. And it’s so hard, because kids are trying to be macho and don’t want Mommy or Daddy a lot of the time to interfere, because that’s not cool. So we need to change that and say speaking out is number one.
Telling the teacher, telling a friend’s parents, telling your pastor at church, telling your mom or dad, anyone. They need to learn to speak out and tell as many people as possible, because unfortunately, today you may tell grandma [and] grandma may write it off, but the next person they tell hopefully won’t.
Q: What can parents do to help their children cope with cyberbullies? Do you recommend that parents intervene?
A: I do, and that’s where it gets tricky, because you don’t want to overreact as a parent. You don’t want to single your child out to be a crybaby, because that doesn’t help them, either. In fact, it can encourage more nonsense. But I think letting the school know that’s there a problem immediately is the best advice for everybody. And to talk to other parents about these circumstances and find out if they’ve had similar experiences.
And ensuring the child has emotional support and evaluation is critical. Because honestly, we’re not in their minds, we don’t know how serious this is until oftentimes it’s so far gone and the child has committed suicide. So, in my opinion, although a parent is good-hearted and a parent may be providing love and care and all the necessities of a good life, we’re not certain that that’s enough. In my opinion, opt for some professional help.
Q: Is there a way for kids to protect themselves from becoming targets of cyberbullying in the first place?
A: A lot of times it’s choosing your technological buddies wisely. A lot of anonymous friends and interacting online with strangers — you’re at a risk. That’s up to the parents to start educating them that there’s dangers online…because you really have no way of knowing who the folks are you’re interacting with.
Q: On the flipside, how can parents prevent their own children from becoming cyberbullies?
A: Reminding them, if I catch you bullying, you’re going to have hell to pay as well. Setting the ground rules, that just like anything else, if we catch you doing wrong, you’re going to be punished. And they need to know.
Taking it a step further, if we do indeed have a bully in the classroom or a bully online, there’s usually some catalyst for it, and unfortunately it could be a cry for help. It could be a child who’s being abused or neglected at home. So that is a big issue and a lot of times, people don’t even think of that. They’re just so quick to punish and want to hang the person. Remember, these are kids we’re talking about. They’re in need of guidance and support.
Q: Are there things that the community as a whole can do to help prevent cyberbullying?
A: Interact with each other. A lot parents are complaining right now to me saying, “Oh Alexis, I don’t have time.” And I say, “Do you have a phone? Do you have email? Of course you have time.”
You can join together as parents in a network and have everyone’s phone number and email in a group listserv and all you do is click a button and you can send out to your group of parents and educators that you have a problem. Communication is key.