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Healthy Children

with Steven Parker, MD

This blog is now retired. Dr. P passed away on Monday, April 13, 2009. The WebMD Community will dearly miss his kind, caring, and often humorous manner.

Thursday, March 29, 2007

Cyberbullying and Your Kids

Sally’s mom was desperate in my office. “She refuses to go to school. She sits around and mopes. Can’t sleep, won’t eat, won’t even talk to me.”

Easy enough: sounds like acute depressive symptoms. But why? Her mom explained, as 13-year old Sally sat mute with big teary eyes:

She has been getting anonymous emails, maybe a hundred or so, saying how she is a loser and nobody likes her and why doesn’t she just switch to another school. They just came out of nowhere and won’t quit.”

Excuse me for a second, ” I stumbled, clueless as to what to say or do. I retreated to my office computer and Googled “cyberbullying“.

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And I thought adolescence was tough in my day!

Now along comes cyberbullying, defined as the posting of frightening, harassing , humiliating (fill in your nightmare adjective) text or images on the internet, cell phones or other digital devices. It’s estimated that one in five kids, ages 11-19, has been electronically bullied in some fashion.

Here’s what can happen to a (usually) pre-or early-teen:

  • Someone takes a dorky or compromising picture of a child (e.g., in the locker room) on their cell phone and then it gets sent around and around to everyone and his uncle (on their cell phones or email).
  • Mean or threatening or humiliating e-mail or cell phone text messages are anonymously sent and distributed to everyone.
  • A blog – read by all – posts the question: “Who is the biggest slut in the school” and offers suggestions of whom the winner should be, and why.
  • “Text wars” are waged on a hapless victim, inundating him/her with cruel messages, not to mention a horrific cell phone bill.
  • Confidential, revealing, embarrassing e-mails are sent all around.
  • A fake, horrible e-mail is sent by an impersonator under your child’s name to others.

I haven’t decided which is worse: the horrible toll this sort of bullying exacts on its victim or the capacity of some mean kids for diabolical cruelty, unleashed by technology.

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I used to think schoolyard bullying was about as bad as it got in childhood, but cyber-bullying strikes me as even more pernicious. The bully is often anonymous and untouchable, the humiliation can occur 24/7 without relief, everyone in the child’s world is a witness to the humiliation, adults are generally unaware and unhelpful (as are most pediatricians like me) about this form of harassment.

So I’ve had to learn on the fly about this particularly nasty 21st-century hazard to adolescents. You should also. Here’s what the experts suggest you teach your kids as an ounce of prevention:

  • Use generic and anonymous user names and on-line profiles.
  • Don’t put your picture online.
  • Be careful to whom you send pictures and emails.
  • Be careful how personally revealing you are when using the internet or cell phone (THINKB4UCLICK)
  • Google yourself. See what’s out there before it blindsides you.
  • Remember your family values of kindness and respect. Don’t be hoodwinked into joining up with the bullies.
  • If you are being victimized, get offline, ignore the messages, save the evidence and report it to your parents, school, internet provider, and/or cell phone company.

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Hey, I never promised being a 21st century parent would be a cakewalk. Here’s another unanticipated worry/responsibility to add to your lengthening list – after the talk about sex, drugs and rock and roll. Become educated on internet safety so you can help your child negotiate its depths and joys and riches, while avoiding its potential dangers. Here’s a good place to start:

http://www.cyberbully.org/

Related Topics:

Editor’s Note: PBS Teachers have declared Friday, March 30th “Stop Cyberbullying Day” – a day to take action by blogging, sharing video, resources and ideas about ways to take a stand against cyberbullying.

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Posted by: Steven Parker MD at 1:35 am

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