All it takes is the click of a keyboard or the push of a "send" button. One unflattering photo posted on Facebook can get plastered all over the Internet with ugly comments. One text message can turn into a string of harassment. This isn't as easy to see as a black eye, but the hurt can go much deeper. Any student with a phone or a computer can become a victim of cyberbullying – or can become a cyberbully.
Cinnamon Blair, university marketing director with the University of New Mexico, recently completed an in-depth look at cyberbullying for her health education master's thesis. She shares her insights. "It's not just a school phenomenon. It extends the playground bullying beyond the schoolyard, beyond the bus, the locker room and the bathroom. You can be reached as long as you have your phone on or are logged onto the computer," she says. Cyberbullying isn't "just words." It can cause feelings of isolation, damage self esteem and push vulnerable youth toward suicide.
What is Cyberbullying?
Bullying has been around forever, but cyberbullying is a new breed. It's sneaky. It can be anonymous. It can follow kids around wherever they go. "You don't really see it. It's not a very visible type of bullying. It's purely psychological," says Blair. Some obvious types of cyberbullying include sending threatening text messages, posting embarrassing videos or sharing unattractive photos. It can also appear as a poll about who the ugliest kids in school are, show up as abusive comments in online forums or involve stealing an identity and making rude posts in disguise.
Cyberbullying can easily balloon out of control as hundreds or thousands of online bystanders contribute to comments or forward mean-spirited videos. "If you forward a text or video that you think is funny, you may not realize that you are participating. You might not think you are that kind of person, but you become a contributor to it," says Blair. Even if a student regrets posting a bad photo or message, taking down the original source doesn't always make it go away. It only takes a few seconds for someone to copy a picture or forward an email.
Keep an eye on your kid and how he behaves with his computer or cell phone. Does he shut down his computer when you peak around the corner? Does he hide his cell phone from your view? Is he constantly online until the wee hours and secretive about what he's doing? These can be signs that cyberbullying is taking place, especially if you notice moodiness, depression or not wanting to go to school. "It's probably very highly under-reported. Kids fear that they are going to have their access taken away, so they won't report it," says Blair.
You don't have to be a high tech parent to be able to help your child with cyberbullying. This is about getting back to basics. "For parents, it's about having a good relationship with your kid and not allowing a lot of computer use behind closed doors," says Blair. She recommends asking your child about who her online friends are, if she knows them personally and keeping an eye on online activities. Remember that cyberbullying can easily pull in bystanders and extend into groups of kids becoming participants. "Parents have to step up. It can be anybody. It can be your own kid that you never ever think would do it," says Blair.
Blair likens cyberbullying to gladiator times when people would come to the Coliseum to watch battles take place. "As content is published, whether it is a video or a text or whatever it may be, it is forwarded. The crowd is part of the problem. If it becomes normal and okay, people won't recognize it for what it is," she says. There is a way to clamp down on cyberbullying. It takes students, parents, schools and communities stepping up. "The only way to stop it is if the community doesn't tolerate it. The kids stand up and say knock it off. People go onto a site and say it's not right," says Blair.
With younger and younger kids getting cell phones and spending time on computers, the problem isn't going to go away on its own. It's time to bring cyberbullying out of the online shadows. Recognize it. Report it. Put a stop to it.