April 12, 2006
Cyberbullying: Is Your Child Safe?
If you're a parent in today's online world, odds are you are all too familiar with the scenario: Your child gets home from school and heads to the computer, where he logs on and immediately begins IMing or e-mailing his friends.
Sound like simple socializing or innocent fun? Perhaps. But take a peek over your child's shoulder sometime and glance at the IMs. If they read anything like the following statements, odds are your child is a victim of cyberbullying: "I hate you." "I have naked pictures of you and I'm going to post them so everyone at school can see them." "If you tell anyone, I will kill you."
The taunting is a far cry from the days when a prank meant calling the local pizza place and having a pie delivered to a high school nemesis, said Cindy Pierce Lee, Associate Director of SCOPE Education Services, an educational cooperative serving Long Island schools since 1964. Pierce Lee hosted a workshop on Cyberbullying at the Gang Awareness 103 seminar in Wading River last week. In a world where cyberstalking and crimes are daily headlines implicating high-ranking police and Homeland Security officials, dangers facing children online can be deadly.
And humiliating: Cell phone photos taken of semi-dressed girls in the locker room or in bathroom stalls, said Pierce Lee, can be sent to millions in minutes.
What this does to kids who crack under the pressure is no joke: Just a quick Google search reveals sobering reports of teens so taunted and tormented by "Mean Girls" or malicious guys who flood them with tortuous text messages and IMs that they commit suicide.
"If someone is picking on you in school, you can go home," said Pierce Lee. "This follows kids into their homes and into their bedrooms."
It's a rapidly growing problem: Sixty-five percent of students ages 8-14, polled by www.wiredsafety.org, have been involved in a cyberbullying incident as either the bully, the victim, or a close friend. Fifty percent have seen or heard of a website bashing another student, 75% have visited a bashing website, and 40% have had their password stolen or changed, or had communications sent to others posing as them. Conversely, only 15% of parents polled had ever heard of cyberbullying.
But what can a parent do to protect their child from cyberbullies and predators?
Parents, stressed Pierce Lee, need to educate themselves, become computer savvy, and log on to websites dedicated to eradicating cyberbullying. Citing advice by Internet attorney Parry Aftab at www.wiredsafety.org, Pierce Lee gave a run-down of important tips.
First, said Pierce, "don't have the computer in a child's bedroom." Parents should put the computer in the kitchen, where they can monitor their child's online activities and notice if they're upset over IMs: "IMs are a subversive, sneaky kind of bullying."
If an IM dialogue gets abusive or inappropriate, children should Stop, Block, and Tell: First, kids should print out the conversation as proof, then refrain from responding to any cyberbullying message, block the person sending it, and tell a trusted adult.
Other safety tips include choosing a non-identifiable, non-gender specific screen name, without sexual references.
Kids should never give out personal information, such as name, phone number, or password. Identity theft is a real threat.
In addition, kids should never accept files or downloads from people they don't know, and never meet someone offline they've met only on the Internet.
If a child is a victim of cyberbullying the road to recourse is rocky. Currently, said Pierce Lee, "the legality of all this is still very gray."
Under New York State's current anti-stalking law, which does not specifically include cyberstalking, the crime is considered a misdemeanor punishable by three months in jail.
A new bill was introduced in March that would add cyberstalking and make it a felony punishable by one to four years in jail.
But until laws get tougher, parents need to be vigilant. Pierce Lee recommends software that tracks Internet activity. Parents should warn kids first that they plan to use the software; if they find inappropriate sites, kids should be punished: "It's a disciplinary act you would take in real life; extend it to computers."
Most important, kids need to know that privacy aside, parents are watching: "This is what a parent does," said Pierce Lee. "You have to make it clear that if you're concerned about them, you're going to make it your business."