After school, 13-year-old Alicia dumps her backpack and heads to the computer to connect with her friends on MSN. One of them breaks the news that she’s been sent a link to a website entitled “Top 10 People Not to Take to Prom,” on which Alicia’s school photo is featured, alongside comments like “What a fat ugly sl*t.” Turns out the rest of Alicia’s friends — and who knows how many other schoolmates — were sent the same link. Crying and fighting the urge to throw up, Alicia tells her mother. Though Mom offers a comforting hug, her advice is less helpful: “Just don’t look at it, hon.” The next day, when Alicia’s mother drives her to school, she can’t understand why the normally easygoing teen refuses to get out of the car.
Details of this story were changed to protect the real Alicia’s identity, but its essence is, sadly, too true. And just like Alicia’s fictional mom, many parents are surprised at how utterly real cyberspace is for kids. In fact, kids generally don’t distinguish between the digital world and the physical one, says Shaheen Shariff, a McGill University education professor and author of Cyber-bullying: Issues for the School, the Classroom and the Home. Because their academic, recreational and social lives have become so intertwined with technology, cyberspace is where kids’ relationships are built or broken.
It’s also where a new breed of schoolyard tyrant can follow your child home and hound his every step, via cellphone or laptop. Imagine your son being awakened by a beeping cellphone at 4 a.m. to find the anonymous text message “im watching u,” or discovering that someone took a photo of him undressing for gym and posted it on the Web for the world to see. Such scenarios are disturbingly real: According to a 2008 University of Toronto survey, 20 percent of students in grades six and seven have been cyberbullied.
In many ways, cyberbullying mirrors what’s been happening on the playground for decades: It’s a high-tech version of gossip and rumour mongering, derogatory name-calling (racial and sexual slurs are common), social shunning and threat making. And as we’ve known for some time, research indicates this kind of psychological bullying is just as damaging as the punch-in-the-face variety. The fallout can range from difficulty concentrating and reluctance to go to school to depression, anxiety and even suicide.
Technology adds extra dimensions that make being bullied online especially traumatizing. Experts say being online can embolden kids to be meaner than they would be off-line: When you can’t see the other person burst into tears, it’s easy to convince yourself a cutting comment was in good fun. And digital communication may encourage kids’ natural impulsivity, says Cathy Wing, co-executive director of Media Awareness Network (MNet) in Ottawa. It’s awfully easy to hit “send” when you’re steamed, only to regret it moments later. Some kids admit they cyberbully because it’s anonymous. “Kids talk about wanting to act mean because they think they can get away with it,” notes Wendy Craig, co-director of PrevNet, an anti-bullying organization based in Kingston, Ont.
Plus, the huge audience and lightning speed of online communication make it overwhelming, notes Robyn MacEachern, a sergeant with the Ontario Provincial Police who gives public presentations on cyberbullying and online safety. Ditto for the fact that digital harassment can reach kids anywhere, any time. “They feel like they don’t have an escape,” explains Kids Help Phone counsellor Aren van Delden. Another problem is that when kids congregate online, adults normally aren’t present to set standards of behaviour. And cyberbullying victims don’t usually seek adult help for fear of losing their online privileges.
Then there’s the fact cyberbullies usually are not anonymous creeps. According to the University of Toronto survey, in 68 percent of cases, the bully is someone from the victim’s social circle — a friend, classmate or student from another school. Small wonder cyberbullying can chip away at a child’s ability to form healthy friendships. “One year after being victimized by cyberbullying, kids report high levels of loneliness and isolation,” says Craig. “They don’t trust friends.” Craig’s research also revealed that both virtual victims and bullies are more likely than other kids to use alcohol and drugs.
Despite these dangers, you needn’t be paralyzed by fear. While MySpace or Habbo may be foreign terrain, online parenting isn’t much different than the regular kind — your kids still need your attention and guidance.
Become cyber-savvy. Your kids won’t take anything you say about the electronic world seriously if you don’t know an instant message from an email. Ask your daughter to teach you how to use instant-messaging software, or get your son to help you set up a MySpace page so you can share family photos with Grandma.
Start a dialogue. Such sessions are also a natural springboard for discussions about online behaviour. For instance, while choosing your privacy settings for a Facebook page, you can talk about who should be allowed to view it. Should you ever share your address or password? Is it your right to say whatever you want online? (Many kids are surprised to learn they can be held criminally responsible for certain online behaviour.) How would you feel if someone wrote a nasty post about you? What would you do if you saw someone else being bullied? This kind of talk will help your child feel more comfortable coming to you if something disturbing happens to him. Emphasize that if a problem arises, you’ll work on it together and if you’re not available, he should tell another trusted adult such as a teacher or a Kids Help Phone counsellor.
Open-ended discussions also encourage your child to think critically about her online activities, which, in the long run, is more valuable than a list of rules. “The only meaningful filter is the one between our kids’ ears,” notes Bill Belsey, founder of cyberbullying.ca and a fifth-grade teacher in a rural public school just outside Calgary. “Like it or not, kids are going to experience things online when we’re not there. We have to help them become resilient enough to know how to respond.”
Set ground rules. That said, there is a place for rules. A few obvious ones: We don’t visit certain sites, share passwords, meet up with people we only know online. Research from MNet found that rules make a big difference in kids’ behaviour. In fact, kids who live in households with rules about the Internet are half as likely to engage in risky behaviour online.
Some families even draft a contract outlining both kids’ and parents’ responsibilities. (Your part of the bargain might include promising not to go ballistic if your child runs into problems.) A sample agreement (check out internet101.ca) can spark ideas about what kind of rules you’d like to set. When it comes to cellphones, pay-as-you-go plans motivate kids to be selective about who they talk to. “They quickly realize it costs them money when someone calls them, and are more careful about sharing their number,” Belsey observes.
Pay attention. Putting the computer in a public area reminds kids to use it responsibly and gives parents a chance to see if their child gets upset while online. As part of your family agreement, you might also periodically check what your child’s been doing. “You can log instant-messaging conversations,” notes MacEachern. (This automatically saves the evidence should your child receive threatening messages.) MacEachern suggests you and your child go over her “friends list” together, since it’s not uncommon for kids to “add” people they’ve never met face to face — say, friends of friends. “Have them identify: ‘Who is this person and how do you know them?’” she says.
While these strategies can reduce your child’s chances of being cyberbullied, they can’t eliminate the possibility. So what should you do if your child confides she’s being harassed electronically?
Coping with cyberbullying
Keep your cool. It’s natural to get upset when someone’s threatening or hurting your child. But if you get worked up, she may think you’re angry with her and avoid coming to you in the future. Other rash reactions (storming off to confront the bully’s parents or the school principal, or suspending your child’s computer privileges) will make matters worse as well. (That’s not to say speaking with the principal or the perpetrator’s parents isn’t sometimes a good idea, but it’s best to think things through first.)
Stop, block and save. “We tell kids to stop talking to the person right away,” says Wing. “Then block the sender, using any technology available in the tool you’re using — almost all email programs have blockers.” As hurtful as the material may be, it’s important to save it as evidence, by printing it out or saving a copy of the web page.
Enlist help. Depending on the situation, an Internet service provider, school principal or even the police may be able to help. “If something is happening on a specific website, contact the site administrator and say, ‘This is what the user has done against my child on your site — what are you going to do about it?’” MacEachern suggests. Some sites will assist in removing offensive content or ban the user. If the offender is a schoolmate, Shariff recommends contacting school authorities in a non-confrontational, collaborative way. In Ontario, if bullying (including the virtual variety) affects a school’s climate, the school has the authority to discipline the offenders, even if the abuse occurs off school grounds.
When should you report cyberbullying to the police? “If it’s name-calling, then it depends on factors like what specifically is being said and how many times — and police judge it case by case,” says MacEachern. However, “If it was occurring in the real world and you’d say, ‘I need to involve the police,’ the same applies online.” (Threats are the obvious example.)
Ask for advice. Kids are smart, and since they’re more familiar with the technology, they may come up with strategies you wouldn’t dream of. Ask your child what she thinks would help the situation. For instance, she may know how to use blocking features, or how to report harassment to MySpace administrators.
Finally, it’s important to recognize that cyberbullying represents only a tiny corner of the virtual world. Most kids use social-networking sites responsibly, stresses Shariff, to share family photographs, stay in touch with mom and dad and even challenge discrimination. While you’ve undoubtedly heard of the online campaign two Nova Scotia students launched in support of a ninth-grader who was picked on for wearing a pink shirt, there are kids who quietly model this kind of compassion every day.
Take this response from a survey Kids Help Phone did in 2007. “I was in a chat room with all my friends and friends’ friends,” one child wrote. “People were fighting and I invited the victim to another window to talk.” Stories like this illustrate one of the advantages of cyberspace — sometimes, it’s an easier place for kids to stand up against cruelty.
Where to go for help
kidshelpphone.ca Kids can call or post a message 24/7 for anonymous, professional counselling. In 2007, Kids Help Phone was used more than two million times by kids from almost 3,000 different Canadian communities.
kinsa.net The Kids’ Internet Safety Alliance site features some first-class resources, including a comic book that outlines Internet safety basics, plus a discussion guide for parents.
media-awareness.ca The Media Awareness Network site offers “Internet 101” for parents, safety checklists and detailed explanations of technological terminology.
opp.ca Search “cyber-bullying” at the Ontario Provincial Police site for an excellent tip sheet.
Generation MySpace: Helping Your Teen Survive Online Adolescence by Candice M. Kelsey. An excellent primer for parents that translates the lingo and covers issues such as the unique pressures girls face online and how the Internet has contributed to teen drug culture.