When Bullying Goes Digital

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Bullies have been around pretty much forever. Goliath taunted and bullied the army of the Israelites every morning and evening for 40 days, and he succeeded; the Israelites were intimidated by the huge warrior. Then young David appeared, unfazed, and took dead aim with his slingshot and killed the 9-foot Philistine giant. (For the whole story read the 17th chapter of I Samuel.) Bullying has taken many forms through the centuries, depending on the means available, most recently through cyberspace. The old adage “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me” isn’t necessarily true when anyone can read a bullying message put out on the internet or some other form of digital communication. And nowadays information can travel instantly to very large numbers of people. That’s what makes cyberbullying so serious; bullying is no longer just one-on-one.Cyberbullying occurs when a child, preteen, or teen is tormented, threatened, harassed, humiliated, embarrassed, or otherwise targeted by another minor using the internet, mobile phone, or other interactive digital technology. There are two kinds of cyberbullying: 1) direct attacks, which are messages sent directly to the victim, and 2) bullying by proxy, in which accomplices are utilized to convey the message. This bullying by proxy is the more dangerous, because often it involves adults. Cyberbullying can take many forms, including a threatening email, nasty instant messaging, repeated messages sent (either verbally or by texting) to the victim’s cell phone, “borrowing” the victim’s screen name and pretending to be them posting a message, or simply forwarding messages or photos/video of material that was entrusted to be confidential. Photos can also be digitally modified; this means that the victim can be shown in compromising situations that look realistic but are totally made up. “Photographs don’t lie” is another old adage that is no longer true. Cyberbullies can also play the age-old role of gossip-monger, spreading lies and rumors about their victims. Cyberbullying can be taken a harmful step further by the establishment of a website dedicated to bullying one or more victims.As you well know, teens and their younger counterparts aren’t necessarily known for their good judgment. Many think that cyber bullying is harmless fun (until it happens to them), they don’t think it’s a big deal, and they rarely consider the consequences. Many cyber bullies think the bullying activity is funny, and most feel that they’ll never get caught. If the bullying activity is serious enough, the perpetrator (depending on age) can be charged with a crime, but frequently the punishment is only the loss of their ISP or IM account. But it can be a much more serious matter if hacking or identity theft is involved. At least 44 states have laws regarding cyberbullying. Most authorize school districts to enact policies and ways to deal with the problem. In one survey of teens, more than half admit that someone has said hurtful things to them online. But almost that many say that they themselves have been the one to send hurtful communication. About 4 in 10 have been bullied online. Parents are often the last to know if their child is a victim of cyberbullying. It’s embarrassing for a child to admit being a victim. If you are the parent of a teen who tells you he/she is the object of a cyberbully, take it seriously. Teens have committed suicide as a result of cyberbullying. Strive to keep communication open with your teen; talk regularly about the problem, and not just from a victim’s point of view. Tables can turn fast in the cyberbullying world, so caution your teen not to take part in the activity. Teens who are victims of cyberbullying can do something about it. Emphasize to them to never respond to an attack. Bullies are trying to elicit a response; they’re trying to “get under the skin,” and if the “victim” doesn’t react, then the bully has failed and will eventually leave them alone. The teen needs to tell someone about the attack. This is where parents or another trusted adult (teacher, coach, etc.) can be a valuable advocate. The teen victim should save the message and print any attack that can be printed; tangible proof is a great tool in deterring cyberbullying. And the teen can block certain email senders or “friends” on social networks. Encourage teens to get together and refuse to pass along cyberbully messages and other material. Tell them to spread the word about not spreading the bad words. And the law is on their side. Texas has a new law, passed within the last two years, that criminalizes online harassment. It states that “a person commits a third-degree felony if the person posts one or more messages on a social networking site (or via instant messaging or text-messaging by phone) with the intent to harm, defraud, intimidate, or threaten another person.” Texas law also makes it a crime to create a website or page under another person’s name or persona without that person’s permission or with the intent to harm, defraud, intimidate, or threaten any person.The effects of cyberbullying can be short-term hurt feelings, embarrassment, and humiliation. But the long-term effects can be wrongly-ruined reputations and character assassinations that can have far-reaching ramifications for job applications and other important endeavors in the future. Cyberbullying is a serious problem. But smart teens, to their credit, are coming together to defeat it. Some of them are conducting their online activities under this credo—“If you wouldn’t say it in person, don’t say it online. Delete cyberbullying. Don’t write it. Don’t forward it.” If enough teens get on board with this attitude, cyberbullying will become a thing of the past.

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