Cyberbullying: Protecting Kids from Dangers Across the Internet
The human race has seen bullying in many and varied forms for centuries, if not millennia, but it has taken on a new and urgent meaning in the Internet age thanks to the constant access and exposure to modern social media. The root causes of bullying hasn’t changed much throughout history; bullies themselves come in all shapes, colors and sizes, and they all demonstrate some level of aggressive behavior toward others usually with the intent of causing psychological distress — and sometimes physical harm — to those whom they perceive as vulnerable.
Since the advent of the World Wide Web four decades ago, bullying of school age children has moved from the playground or lunchroom to the vastness of cyberspace. As such, online bullying, or cyberbullying as it’s now popularly known, has become a constant topic in the news and an ever-present concern for families nationwide. While no age group is immune, it is adolescents who can be especially susceptible to what others say and do on the Internet — the teenage years are already a particularly difficult time for young people even without an onslaught of negative content and personal attacks that can occur across any number of social media sites.
Counteracting the ill effects of cyberbullying amounts to a seemingly never-ending fight by concerned parents, educators, business leaders and government entities as they all attempt to understand and thwart the corrosive effects on our kids. Unfortunately, personal electronic devices are such an integral part of daily life for both parents and children that stopping this scourge of high-tech bullying, or at least reducing its effects is no easy task; it isn’t as simple as telling kids to turn off their smartphone, tablet or computer. While many youngsters do exercise good judgement when it comes to using the technology that resides, literally, at their fingertips, some of them still choose to apply it in inappropriate and malicious ways to hurt, humiliate, embarrass and (often anonymously) attack others online.
Are There Risks Associated With Cyberbullying?
There are many risks associated with cyberbullying, and in many ways online bullying is much more dangerous for kids now than traditional “playground-style” bullying ever was. This is mainly because cyberbullies do not suffer the constraints of time and space. Attacks are often more intense, frequent and, by their very nature, can come at any time of the day or night. Some cyberbullies use their knowledge of the internet to hide their identities, allowing them to easily attack others anonymously at any time, from any place, which can cause not only the victims, but their parents and other concerned adults as well, to feel powerless to stop such a seemingly insurmountable problem.
Technology has also amped up the level of cruelty available to cyberbullies as their criticism, shaming and out-right maliciousness can instantly reach a much larger audience than traditional playground bullying, which only serves to compound the negative effects that bullying has on the intended victims. The technical features of modern social media sites also provide an added, multi-media facet to a cyberbully’s repertoire, which arrives in the form of still images, sounds and video, all of which can now be easily altered to suit the bully’s intended goal.
The risks of cyberbullying to vulnerable kids should never be trivialized simply because it doesn’t happen “in person.” Regardless of whether bullying occurs on the playground, in the lunchroom or in cyberspace the results can be devastating for many youngsters. The effects of modern cyberbullying on victims has been associated with frustration and embarrassment, sadness and anger, and even feelings of fear and dread. And the risks to victims can go even further, with researchers noting increased frequency of delinquency and assaultive conduct by the victims themselves, as well as the potential for reduced self-esteem and the exhibiting of potentially suicidal feelings, not to mention an increase in the victims’ propensity toward traditional bullying and even victimization of others, perpetuating this sad and destructive cycle.
What Makes a Cyberbully?
A constant question that many parents ask is what makes a Cyberbully, and how could an otherwise good kid start engaging in bullying behavior in the first place? The reasons for a shift in behavior toward that of bullying others can arise from a number of factors; but regardless of whether it is traditional bullying or cyberbullying, the underlying causes are often the same and rooted in similar issues, which include:
- Lack of attention at home — If young kids don’t receive needed attention from their family, they sometimes turn to bullying as one way to gain attention from others outside the home
- Urge to control their environment — Pressure to be popular in school can prompt some kids to act out in the classroom in an effort to attract attention from and gain approval of their peers
- Mimicking bullying behavior observed in others — Some kids who see bullying occurring in and around their school, or even at home, can sometimes adopt similar behaviors, thus learning to become aggressors themselves
- Mistreatment by Siblings — Some children who are teased, taunted or bullied by a sister or brother may adopt similar behaviors with others around them, perpetuating the cycle of aggression
- Inability to appreciate diversity in others — Not understanding why another kid is different from them (due to differences in ethnicity, culture or other identity markers) may result in a child acting out by engaging in bullying behavior against the one viewed as different
Are There Laws to Protect Kids from Bullying?
In addition to state and local laws and ordinances, there are a number of federal laws meant to provide kids in the U.S. some level of protection against cyberbullying, these include:
- Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) — The COPPA requires websites and online services to obtain parental consent prior to collecting any personal information from children under 13 years of age. COPPA also gives parents the right to review, and even delete, their child’s personal information
- Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) — FERPA was created to protect the privacy of student educational records, giving parents and legal guardians the right to review and challenge the content of their child’s educational record
- Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA) — The ECPA prohibits unauthorized interception of electronic communications, which includes both email messages as well as texts
As the threat of cyberbullying continues to gain attention, additional legislative action will likely be seen in an effort to further protect children. One example of proposed legislation, known as the Cyberbullying Research and Prevention Act, is designed to address the causes and societal effects of cyberbullying by establishing a grant program through the U.S. Department of Education to fund research into various approaches for preventing online bullying.
If enacted, the Cyberbullying Research and Prevention Act would provide funding for the development and implementation of programs for the prevention of cyberbullying, as well as intervention programs for victims and their families. As U.S. federal law, it would also require school systems nationwide to adopt anti-cyberbullying policies while providing funding for training programs to help teachers and other school personnel recognize and respond to online bullying.
State Laws Addressing Bullying
Most every state has laws against cyberbullying. California, for example, has incorporated its anti-bullying regulations into the state’s Education Code; regulating traditional bullying as well as sexual bullying by “electronic act” either on or off school grounds. The California Education Code defines bullying as “any severe or pervasive physical or verbal act or conduct, including communications made in writing or by means of an electronic act, and including one or more acts committed by a pupil or group of pupils… placing a reasonable pupil or pupils in fear of harm to that pupil’s or those pupils’ person or property.” The California Education Code specifies “Electronic act” as meaning the use of an electronic device, including “wireless communication devices” and computers, and in the form of a “message, text, sound, video, or image.”
In the state of New York State, both bullying and cyberbullying are regulated via the state’s Education Law statutes, as well as its Codes, Rules and Regulations. New York defines cyberbullying as the “creation of a hostile environment by conduct or by threats, intimidation or abuse” with the effect of “unreasonably and substantially interfering with a student’s educational performance, opportunities or benefits, or mental, emotional or physical well-being” via any form of electronic communication. New York’s anti-bullying laws cover both on- and off-campus conduct — such as threats, abuse or intimidation — that creates a risk of substantial disruption within the school environment.
In Maryland, the state’s legal statutes provide that any person who engages in cyberbullying can be charged with a criminal offense, which if convicted of that offense may subject that individual to monetary fines and/or imprisonment. Additionally, victims of cyberbullying in the state of Maryland also have the right to file a civil lawsuit against the perpetrator. For the purposes of defining cyberbullying in Maryland, state law describes it as using any form of electronic communication (including email, text messages, social media, or other online platforms) to harass, intimidate, or bully another person. In short, in Maryland, it is illegal for someone to engage in cyberbullying if that individual intends to intimidate or harass another person, or if the individual knows (or should know) that such conduct is likely to intimidate or harass another person.
Efforts by Social Media Platforms to Protect Kids
Social media websites and other platforms are often the vehicles for online bullying, but what are the companies behind them doing to protect kids? Visit: Social Media’s Approach to Cyberbullying
What Parents Can Do to Address Cyberbullying
Although it may seem daunting given all the negative press coverage, parents do have a great deal of power to protect their kids from most kinds of bullying; but in order to give children the tools to safely navigate the Internet and reduce or eliminate the impact of online bullying, much success will invariably begin with a healthy home environment. Of course, as parents, grandparents and caregivers, this won’t be an easy road especially because it’s very difficult to stay on top of a child’s Internet activity 24/7. With this in mind, here are some suggestions:
- Set boundaries — As with many aspects of a youngster’s life, it’s important to establish firm rules and guidelines for your child’s internet use. This should include set limits on screen time, monitoring of their online activity and discussing appropriate online behavior early on
- Educate them — Kids may act like they know everything, but this is hardly ever the case, especially in terms of internet safety. Explain the seriousness of internet safety, as well as the importance of treating other people with respect online, just as when they interact in person. Encourage your children to consider the effects of what they say and do online — to think twice before posting a comment or sending and email. Be sure to impress upon them the importance of reporting any instances of bullying or other inappropriate behavior to you or another trusted adult
- Employ privacy settings — Encourage your kids to make full use of the privacy settings on their social media apps and web accounts. Advise them, in no uncertain terms, of the need to be cautious when it comes to sharing any personal information online
- Monitor their activity online — Make it a habit to check in on a regular basis with your kids regarding their online activity, as well as which websites and apps they are using. Also, inform yourself regarding any platforms that you are not familiar with
- Foster an open dialogue with your kids — Help your your kids feel comfortable about sharing their online activities; keeping an open line of communication with them will go a long way toward understanding what they are doing day in and day out. Also, try to encourage your children to tell you, or another trusted adult, about any online bullying they may encounter; this goes for bullying they directly experience as well as instances they may hear about secondhand from friends or siblings
Whether its cyberbullying or traditional bullying, parents, grandparents and other adults can do their part to nip the cycle of bullying in the bud. Here are a few useful tips for instilling respect for others and avoiding the pitfalls that can lead to bullying behavior in our own children and grandchildren:
- Give your kids the attention they need at home — Making certain that your child receives the attention he or she needs can go a long way toward reducing any propensity toward bullying. It is well known that many kids (and adults) who bully suffer with issues of low self-esteem. By providing focused attention and encouragement, your child can build his or her confidence, thus reducing the need to bully others
- Educate your kids about peoples of differing backgrounds — Exposure to cultures and identities unlike their own will help your child to better understand what is a vibrant and diverse world we all inhabit. Doing so will help make them less likely to act out against others they see as different or who have a different lifestyle
- Get involved in anti-bullying efforts — Attending events held by organizations such as “Stomp Out Bullying” or “Stand for the Silent” not only can help parents learn about anti-bullying efforts against cyberbullying, but its also a great way to show ations out of many that teach youth what bullying is and the destructive effects it can have on others
What Schools Can Do to Prevent Cyberbullying
According to the Maryland State Department of Education (MSDE), our local schools have a commitment to providing safe, productive and inclusive learning environments. Yet, even though every student has the right to be free from bullying, harassment or intimidation — as state law provides for — the prevention of cyberbullying itself can be difficult to accomplish completely.
From a strictly legal point of view, schools have a responsibility to take the necessary steps to address and prevent cyberbullying; they typically do this by adopting policies designed to prevent all types of bullying, including instances of online bullying, and then to take the appropriate disciplinary action when bullying has been discovered. As part of their responsibility, Maryland schools must provide anti-bullying resources as well as support to those students identified as victims of online or other bullying, which may include counseling, support from teachers and other school personnel, or access to other appropriate services.
Keep in mind that while Maryland law indeed does requires schools to actively engage in the prevention of cyberbullying, the role of the student’s family — parents, grandparents, siblings, etc. — will always be a an important aspect of protecting children from the deleterious effects of cyberbullying. The reason for this, as experts in the field frequently point to, is that bullying is often a symptom of relationship problems, which are most effectively addressed through a holistic approach involving the students themselves and their parents or caregivers, along with the help and support of teachers and school counselors, and the occasional assistance of concerned citizens and other groups within the local community.
Psychologists typically agree that children with a happy and healthy home life will likely manage a cyberbullying episode better than those who do not have a good relationship with their parents and siblings. Whatever the circumstances, any parent or concerned adult that believes a student is the victim of cyberbullying, it is important to talk with the student as well as seek the help of another trusted adult, such as a teacher, counselor, or school resource officer.