In addition to Domestic Violence Awareness Month, October has also been designated “National Bullying Prevention Month.” In remembrance of this fact, CNN.com ran this article on cyber-bullying which looks specifically at ways parents can protect their children from incidences of Internet and electronic harassment.
Most of the concern about cyber-bullying stems from the fact that it is inherently difficult to discover, and easy to conceal or deny–particularly if parents and school officials are not as “tech-savvy” as their kids. According to Michael Fertick of ReputationDefender, “seventy-five percent of the problem is in surfacing the incidents.” To combat this trend, companies like ReputationDefender market both free and paid-for tools that allow clients to monitor what is being said about them on the Internet. These programs look for references to a given individual or group. And once a reference is found, clients are alerted to what is being said about them, essentially functioning like a personal Internet gossip monitor. But while such tools may be useful for parents wishing to track a known or existing pattern of harassment, experts insist they are not appropriate for use by parents, “just in case.” Here’s why-
Justin Patchin is a criminal justice professor at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, and co-director of the Cyberbullying Research Center. The problem, he says, is that parents who spy on their kids (whether overtly or not) may do more harm than good–especially if they do so in the absence of a clear and existing cause for concern. “We don’t think it’s a good idea for parents to spy on their kids surreptitiously,” he points out, “because eventually they’re going to find something they have to confront them about, and it’s going to destroy the other lines of communication.” To illustrate his point, Patchin uses the familiar analogy of a real-world playground. “If parents are letting their kids play on a playground with a bunch of other kids,” he says. “They aren’t going to want their parents right in there playing with them.”
Even when parents do find a cause to intervene, their reactions are often well-intentioned, but counter-productive. Susan Limber, a professor and bullying researcher at Clemson University, points out that many parents’ default reaction to cyber-bullying is to further limit or intrusively monitor a child’s access to the net, in an effort to insulate and protect them. While certainly understandable, such efforts do not address the actual bullying and may make matters worse for the child by isolating them from support or emotional outlets they might have already found online, “In the children’s eyes, this can be seen as punishment, so it’s another reason they tell us they don’t report it.” This fact, coupled with the intense feelings of shame and isolation that already accompany bullying, make many children reluctant to come forward, and may motivate them to recant their claims, or minimize and deny further abuse.
By far the most effective way to prevent cyber-bullying is general awareness and education–both for parents, and children.
According to Patchin, parents need to be aware of the problem, but also to understand the realities of Internet communication. “I talk to a lot of parents whose kids are on Facebook but they don’t know what Facebook is,” he says. “They have all these preconceived notions or opinions about Facebook, but they’ve never been on the site.”
Likewise, Limber encourages parents and school officials to educate their kids about cyberbullying; its consequences are every bit as real as face-to-face bullying, “What we’ve learned is that we really need to define cyber bullying as a form of bullying since many of the students… did not make that connection initially.” Indeed while many of her students already realize that it’s wrong to pick on a classmate in person, there is a fundamental disconnect between one’s actions in the virtual world, and the social ramifications and consequences they can have in reality.
The hope is that by teaching new users to be aware of the existence and consequences of cyber-bullying, they can prevent another tragedy like Tyler Clementi. Clementi, an 18-year-old Rutgers University freshman, apparently committed suicide after his roommate allegedly broadcast a Web video of him having a same-sex sexual encounter.
In an effort to promote greater awareness about cyberbullying and healthy relationships in general FVPC community educators will be in Chapel Hill Carrboro middle schools this academic year. FVPC will ask students to reflect on their own behaviors, as well as teach them to think about and be aware of how the things they say and do online might affect the person on the other end. As Patchin reminds us, while the messages we send may be virtual, “we’re messing with real lives.”