Cyberbullying has been gaining more and more media attention with several recent teen suicides linked to this relatively new form of harassment. Experts agree that cyberbullying is not the sole cause of suicide but can certainly be a strong contributor. The Cyberbully Research Center defines cyberbullying as “willful and repeated harm inflicted through the use of computers, cell phones, and other electronic devices.” It occurs with communication tools such as social media sites, chat, email, phone calls, and texting. It can come in the form of threats, cruel rumors, embarrassing pictures and videos, fake profiles, sharing someone else’s personal information, or excluding them from online social groups. Deception is often used, as in pretending to be a friend to solicit personal information from a person, or pretending to be someone else for the same purpose. The goal of cyberbullying is to intentionally humiliate, harass, intimidate, or exclude the victim.

Over the past decade the use of cell phones, texting, and social media sites has skyrocketed, leading to increasing research on cyberbullying. The following has been found repeatedly by several research groups:
• About half of all adolescents and teens report being cyberbullied at some point
• More than half do not tell their parents
• About half have admitted to cyberbullying
• Girls tend to be more involved in cyberbullying than boys, though boys may start earlier
• Most teens use social media sites, and most of them report witnessing bullying
• Most of these teens ignore the bullying.

Cyberbullying differs from regular bullying in a few ways. For one thing, it’s harder to get away from cyberbullying. Harassment through phones or the internet isn’t limited to a certain place or time. And it often happens at home, a place where one has traditionally sought refuge from bullying. It can reach a kid when they’re alone. It’s harder for authority figures to intervene, as teachers might with schoolyard bullying. Cyberbullying can be done anonymously, making it difficult or impossible to impose consequences on the bully. Anonymity can create a deeper sense of fear and suspicion – it’s hard to deal with a threat if you don’t know who it is. It’s easy to reach a wide audience with internet harassment. Harassing posts, pictures, and texts can be hard or impossible to delete, sometimes staying public for a long time or resurfacing at later dates, unlike a traditional schoolyard fight which can be over and possibly forgotten relatively quickly. Also, cyberbullying is easy to do, from the comfort and convenience of one’s own home, and without the risk, timing, or energy required with traditional bullying. In fact, it’s so easy to cyberbully that it can be done almost without thinking, starting off as an unkind comment or joke and then gaining momentum as more people join in.

The effects of cyberbullying are widespread. Kids who are bullied are more likely to have low self-esteem, more physical health complaints, a higher rate of depression and anxiety, more school absences, academic struggles, and a higher dropout rate. They are also more prone to traditional bullying. Kids who bully are more likely to get into fights, vandalize property, drop out of school, abuse substances, engage in early sexual activity, and as adults engage in criminal activity and be abusive toward their partners and children. Kids who witness bullying are more likely to skip school, struggle with depression and anxiety, and use substances.

Cyberbullying can be hard for a parent to recognize. There aren’t the physical injuries or torn clothing that might be noticeable with physical bullying. Some things to look for are declining grades, low mood, losing interest in activities they usually enjoy, social withdrawal, complaints of feeling sick in order to miss school or other events with peers, changes in eating habits, and problems with sleeping. Their computer use habits might change, and they might be more anxious or sad before or after their time on the social networking sites.

Fortunately, schools, states, and the federal government are creating more programs, rules, and laws to prevent and punish cyberbullying. But they are still gaining momentum, and as with any societal evil, protection starts at home. Help protect your child from cyberbullying by educating them about it. Talk with them what it is and how to recognize it. Teach them how to handle it – for example, block the person sending the messages, delete messages without reading them, keep passwords private, not share any information that they would not want to be made public, not share personal information online, and how to report the problem to the Internet Service Provider, website moderator, or gaming host. Encourage your kids to put their time and energy into other activities, and develop healthy interests, skills, and relationships – in addition to helping them spend their time in prosocial ways, it will help them build self-esteem to inoculate them from bullying. Talk with your child regularly about how things are going at school, with friends, and how they’re feeling. Learn how they spend their time on the bus, at lunch, or during recess. Find out how they feel about themselves. Keep up to date with school newsletters, talk with the adults who interact with your child every day, and get to know their friends. Let your kids know that if they are being bullied, they can talk to you without being shamed or reprimanded – they often don’t talk about it because of the nature of the allegations (false or real), embarrassing photos or videos, or general humiliation about being bullied. Be clear with them that it is not their fault. If you need help for a child who has been bullied or who is engaged as a bully, there are therapists who specialize in children and teenagers who can help your family, and/or the school counselor may be able to assist as well.

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