by Stephanie Partridge
The story is unfortunately all too common. A 13 year old boy commits suicide after a cyberbully torments him relentlessly. An 18 year old girl kills herself after a "sexting" incident that put nude photos of her, meant only for her boyfriend, in the hands of many other people, some in the very school she attended. It seems to be reaching epidemic proportions, cyberbullying and sexting. It seems that the online world has gone out of control, populated with perverts and bullies. So, how can parents keep their children safe without taking the internet away from them completely? What can a parent do to protect their children from what at times is a very cruel world?
So, what can parents do to protect their children from cyberbullies and prevent them from sexting? Well, you could take away cell phones and set the parental controls on the internet so that the only page they can access is Disney.com, but that isn't very realistic. Also, when you get right down to it, you can't spend your life shielding your children from things that may hurt them. If you do, you are doing them a great disservice. The best thing that you can do is teach them how to protect themselves and how to make smart, sound decisions.
Know the Signs
Of course, things will still happen and your child may become a victim regardless of what you teach them. It is important to know the warning signs so that you can tell when something is wrong. Laying a good foundation of open communication with your child is a good start and will help you pick up on the warning signs early. The signs may be subtle and barely discernable.
A child who is the victim of a cyberbully often feels embarrassed. They may be afraid that you will overreact and to postal on their tormentor which could, they fear, make things worse. They may fear that you will pull the plug on their internet, limiting their activities and restricting their use of cell phones and internet. In short, they aren't likely to tell you if they are being bullied. This means that you have to be on your toes and paying attention. These warning signs will help to tip you off:
- After using the computer or cell phone, your child seems angry, agitated, sad or upset.
- Your child begins to withdraw from friends and stops doing activities that they once enjoyed.
- Problems at school arise, from declining grades to behavior problems. A child who once loved school may suddenly hate it.
- Changes in sleeping patterns or appetite. Your child may begin sleeping more than usual or become an insomniac. They may begin eating voraciously or suddenly decrease the amount that they eat.
- Physical appearance such as sudden weight gain or weight loss (from appetite changes), cuts on the arms or legs (known as "cutting" – a self mutilating practice that stems from depression and stress) and signs that your child may be using drugs or alcohol (a way of "self medicating" to ease the pain of the torment)
- Symptoms of depression that may appear suddenly or sporadically.
When you witness these warning signs, try talking with your child to find out what is going on. Let them know that you care and are concerned about their welfare. Reassure them that you do not intend to take away their computer or cell phone, do anything to make matters worse or restrict their activities in an effort to protect them. Let them know that you just want to help. If your child reveals to you that they are the victim of a cyberbully, you and your child need to work together to stop the harassment. By engaging your child in the process, you are not only empowering them to fight against the abuse, you are also sending them a strong, positive message that you believe they are strong enough to fight.
- Print out any messages, emails, online posting, etc. Try to show as much information as possible, regarding date, time, the person who wrote it and the IP address if possible.
- Save text messages and voicemails.
- Try to identify the cyberbully, but be aware that quite often, it is more than one person doing the harassing. There may be one ringleader, so to speak, but there are usually several people involved.
- Tell the cyberbully to stop harassing your child.
- Find out the bully's internet service provider and cell phone provider and file formal complaints. It may be a little tough to file a complaint with the cell phone service provider if the bully has a pay-as-you-go phone and is not on a regular plan.
- If you know the identity of the cyberbully and they are a child, contact their parents. Send a certified letter detailing the harassment. Include copies of the proof that you gathered and inform them that if the behavior does not stop immediately you will take legal action.
- If the cyberbullying is occurring at your child's school, or someone from your child's school is the perpetrator, contact the school and inform them of the activity so that they can take protective measures to protect your child and stop the bullying.
- If the bullying contains threats of physical harm, are of a sexual nature from a sexual predator or violate any laws, contact the police immediately. In some states, the stalking laws define stalking as an activity that makes a person fearful for their own welfare. Look up the laws in your state to see if the bullying can actually be placed in the stalking category and you can protect your child under those laws.
The National Center for Victims of Crime has an extensive website, Stalking Resource Center (http://www.ncvc.org/src/Main.aspx). There are many tips, resources, products, newsletters and information that can prove very helpful in dealing with cyberbullies. You can even look up the internet laws in your state regarding stalking and harassment. Of course, the number one thing you can do to protect your child from a cyberbully, is to talk to them. Educate them, empower them and keep an open door policy so that they feel comfortable coming to you with anything. Be a parent, but also be a friend so that you can tackle issues like this together.
Stephanie Partridge is a freelance writer and photographer as well as a FOIA analyst for a federal agency in Washington, D.C. She is a single mom to Jeffery, 19; Micah Elizabeth, 17 and Benjamin, 15. She is also the author of the ebook, “Diet is a Dirty Word.”
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