Beware of Cyberbullying

Beware of Cyberbullying

Curiosity led me to a recent PBS documentary about contemporary adolescents' life online. The fact that most of the real people shown happened to live or work in the town to which I had recently moved was a prime source of interest. It's a quaint and very old suburban town, admired far and wide for its "best town to live in" status. Everything within view lends itself to trust. On Saturdays during fall football season, the high school marching band parades toward the field, passing right in front of our house in full regalia. At moments like that, I am taken back to the patriotic ambience of my own childhood and adolescence. They bring to mind the phrase, "What a great place to bring up kids!"

But as I discovered with considerable shock first from watching the documentary, kids today inhabit another world, where marching bands, Thanksgiving Day parades, Fourth of July picnics, low crime rates, and even school anti-bullying programs can't protect them sufficiently. That's because they have another gravely risky life--in Cyberland where anonymous bullying is rampant and (rarely) can even be deadly. The documentary reported at least one suicide of a "cyberbullying" victim. It occurred after the boy's dad had spent many weeks gently coaching the teen to be assertive and confident, at the young man's request. The child's confidence did seem to surge and the family felt good about it. Then came the unthinkable loss. The father traced the emails his son had received from a cyberbully, hoping to alert other parents, although this miscreant was only one of many.

All of this came back to me in an even more compelling form when I read Amy Barry's "Parent's Eye View" column in the March 27, 2008 issue of The Sound, one of several weeklies published along the Connecticut shore. This piece is called "Confronting The Bully That Never Goes Home" because the bully it describes "follows your kid around 24-7.” This bully "lives inside your child's computer, determined to make his or her life miserable." The author describes her own shock at discovering "how pervasive this form of harassment has become."

Much of her information was gathered at a meeting sponsored by the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), an organization that is trying to intervene. I think it is worth quoting some of the statistics she shares:

  • More than 13 million children in the U.S. aged 6 to 17 are targets of cyberbullying.
  • In a typical classroom of 30 students, more than half have been targets of cyberbullying.

Just as with the case of the boy mentioned above who took his own life, cyberbullying is most often anonymous, which empowers kids to say dreadful things they would never say if they thought they could be found out. It is not easy for parents to defuse the explosive quality of such cyberbullying, since they are not as comfortable as their children are at chatting, emailing, or IMing. Amy Barry recommends the ADL's free downloadable lessons on cyberbullying. I am most grateful to her for bringing this vital matter to our attention.

April 2, 2008

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