Cyber-bullying cases always seem to garner attention and outrage, but perhaps no more so than the recent, well-publicized tragedy at Rutgers University, where a student committed suicide after a friend and his roommate secretly filmed a compromising video of him and posted it online. Part of the shock of that event has a lot to do with the public's realization that cyber-bullying doesn't end with grade school and playground politics. "I can tell you that two to three years ago, I was going along assuming that bullying ends at the end of high school," says Elizabeth Englander, PhD, professor of psychology and director of the Massachusetts Aggression Reduction Center. "But since then, there have been a couple of studies showing that bullying and cyber-bullying happen at the college level. People don't magically wake up when they're 18 and realize these things should no longer happen."
Still, cyber-bullying takes a particularly heavy toll on younger children, who are likely to find themselves more depressed after a cyber-bully attack than after other forms of bullying, finds a new study published in the September issue of the Journal of Adolescent Health. While the study authors suggest that the anonymity behind cyber-bullying drives students to feel lonely, Englander thinks that there's more at play. "Anything you do online is there forever, and I think that's part of the depression issue—this sense that things that have been done to you can be seen over and over again, even after you get older," Englander says.
THE DETAILS: The authors of the new study used data from a 2005 to 2006 study of health behaviors in school-age children. Their sample included 7,313 students with an average age of 14, about evenly split between boys and girls. Each student filled out a survey gauging his or her emotions for the previous 30 days, for instance, whether they felt sad, hopeless about the future, or had difficulty concentrating on schoolwork; they also reported how frequently they were involved in different types of bullying, such as physical, verbal, or cyber-bullying, as either the bully or the victim or both. Frequent victims of cyber-bullying had the highest reported levels of depression, compared to victims of other sorts of bullying. The authors found that cyber-bullying affects bullies differently as well. Whereas physical bullies are likely to report higher levels of depression than their victims do, cyber-bullies report significantly lower levels of depression than their victims.
WHAT IT MEANS: The results of this study confirm all too well what the Rutgers suicide case made clear: Cyber-bullying can have devastating affects. The study authors put it this way: "Unlike traditional victims, cyber-victims may experience an anonymous attacker who instantly disperses fabricated photos throughout a large social network; as such, cyber-victims may be more likely to feel isolated, dehumanized, or helpless at the time of the attack."
In other words, cyber-bullying is more than just typical schoolyard torment conducted in an online environment. "There such a sense of helplessness, much more so with cyber-bullying than with other types of bullying," says Susan Swearer, PhD, assistant professor of psychology at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, who researches cyber-bullying. "Technology has changed our culture and in some sense we haven't been prepared for it, and now, we're seeing the consequences."
But parents can tame that technology with tried and true parenting. Teaching kids what's appropriate online is really a matter of getting back to basics, Swearer says—which means monitoring their Internet usage, talking to them about bullying, and making sure they know the golden rule.
Here's how to protect your kids from online bullies—and keep them from being bullies themselves:
• Start early with an anti-bullying education. It's important to teach kids the importance of kindness and the golden rule, "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you," as early as possible, says Swearer. It's particularly important as children become tech-savvy at younger and younger ages. "Have this be part of responsible technology training, and how kids can use technology in a healthy way," she says.
• Don't be afraid to read a few emails. When your kids do finally get old enough to set up email accounts or Facebook pages, or they want a cellphone, Swearer stresses the need for parents to be actively involved in what goes on there. "So often, parents tell me that they don't want to invade their child's privacy," she says. "And I tell them, you're not. You're the one paying for it!" As long as you're footing the bill for the Internet connection or the text messages, you have a right to know what's going on.
Doing so helps train kids that you're watching, and that everything they do can be seen by you, says Englander. "You want to train kids to think before they post or send anything that may become public," she says. She tells parents to tell their children that Mom and Dad are watching everything they do online. "So when a child posts something, they should be asking themselves, 'Are Mom and Dad going to be OK with this?'" Englander adds. "You do this for five to 10 years, and at the end, you hope that your children are so used to stopping and thinking about what they're posting that they'll do it as adults too, and they're never going to post the kind of thing that's going to get them fired from a job."
• Learn the warning signs of unhealthy technology use. Some children simply feel more need to be connected than other kids, Swearer says, which can open them up to being more vulnerable to cyber-bullying attacks. For instance, children who send 3,000 texts a day (they do exist) or spend seven hours on Facebook (those exist, too), have an unhealthy relationship with technology, she says, and can more easily obsess over losing a "friend" or getting a mean message. They can also wind up as bullies themselves. "When they just have uncontrolled access to this medium, without guidance, it's easy to see how it can be misused," she says. Put limits on how much time can be spent online (the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends no more than two hours) and how many texts can be sent. "Confiscate the phone if you have to," she says. Watch out for other signs that your child could be harassing another, for instance, if he instantly switches screens when you walk into the room or she is acting secretive.
• Teach them that anonymous posts aren't really "anonymous." "Kids who engage in cyber-bullying tell us that the most common reason to bully someone is that they don't have to see the target's face," says Englander. "They perceive it to be totally anonymous." But, says Swearer, "there is a bit of a myth that you're completely anonymous online." Email addresses and fake Facebook pages can be traced back to a home or school computer's IP address, and most schools and offices monitor Internet usage and sites visited. Is someone going to take all that time to investigate? Maybe not, but it helps to make kids aware that mean behaviors online can be traced back to a single individual.
• Stress the importance of privacy boundaries. At a school in Philadelphia recently, some students created a fake Facebook page on which photos from other students' pages were posted and other kids made fun of the pictures or the people in the pictures. As online privacy becomes harder and harder for adults to protect, it's that much more important to teach children and teenagers that anything posted online can be used as fodder for bullies, says Swearer. "Parents think that a child will use the same judgments that they would use," she says. "But privacy boundaries are so much less obvious for them," which is likely why teenagers are just learning the dangers of sexting long after images of themselves have been unleashed around the Web. Teach children what issues are meant to be kept private and what details can be shared; walk through their Facebook privacy settings with them if need be.
• Talk. "Things like basic kindness and basic acceptance and tolerance are human characteristics that parents just need to constantly talk about with their children," Swearer says. "Think about the times you have just with your kids alone, times riding in the car or just sitting at home. Seize all those moments and create a healthy environment where you can talk about these issues with kids." The easiest cyber-bully to deal with is the one who never becomes a cyber-bully.