Consider how often you use the Internet or a cell phone. Over the last decade, technology has become ingrained in our daily lives, changing the way we work, communicate, and seek information or entertainment. At schools across the country, many students are accessorized with the latest cell phones and iPods. Children are especially tech-savvy, having grown up alongside computers, the Internet, and cell phones, and many connect with friends several times a day through email, text messages, Web sites, or instant messaging. But along with the convenience and communication that these high-tech innovations provide, the potential for negative experiences has also emerged.

A New Arena for Bullying

Cyberbullying is using technology to threaten, insult, or harass. These technologies allow for aggressive expression toward others that doesn’t rely on physical strength or even physical contact. Armed with a cell phone or the Internet, a child who cyberbullies can quickly and aggressively spread rumors, threats, hate mail, or embarrassing photos through text messages, emails, or instant messages.

Today, anyone with access to the Internet or a cell phone has the tools to cause harm. Anonymity can be a critical factor; it’s much easier for those who cyberbully to harass when they are able to hide their identities with false screen names or temporary email addresses. In other cases, the targets have never had any previous interaction with their aggressors, or only know them through online communication.

Although traditionally a child who bullies may target another child at school in front of a handful of classmates, the potential audience for someone who cyberbullies is much wider. Humiliating messages can be posted online for hundreds or thousands to see on websites, blogs, or social network sites such as Facebook.

The Social and Emotional Cost

Those who cyberbully and their targets may suffer socially, emotionally, and academically. “Bullying in general has negative health and social consequences,” says Dr. Michele Ybarra, Ph.D., a recognized researcher in web-related health issues for young people and president of the nonprofit Internet Solutions for Kids, Inc. “Bullying is an important public health issue—whether it happens at home, at school or online—and it’s behavior that should not be tolerated.”

As with traditional bullying, cyberbullying incidents can be very distressing and upsetting for some youth. Symptoms of depression have been noted among some targets of cyberbullying, says Dr. Ybarra. She notes that those who bully are not immune to personal issues and challenges such as poor parent-child relationships, delinquent behaviors, and substance use. Research indicates that those who bully and are bullied in traditional environments appear to be at greatest risk of experiencing problems in school, difficulty making friends, loneliness, and problem behaviors such as smoking and drinking. It’s possible that similar characteristics are true for youth who bully and are bullied online as well, but research remains to be done in this area, says Dr. Ybarra.

Safeguarding Our Children

Is cyberbullying a passing trend or a permanent phenomenon? Dr. Ybarra believes cyberbullying is here to stay. She notes that this practice has been around for at least five years, and is gaining recognition in the health fields, particularly since 1999, when the federal government sponsored the first Youth Internet Safety Survey to gauge the potential for negative online experiences to young users, including unwanted sexual solicitation and harassment. Dr. Ybarra continues to focus her research on the important intersection of children’s mental health and Internet use, and offers suggestions for children, parents, and educators to deal with cyberbullying.

“Adults see the Internet as a thing, but children see the Internet as a place, like home or school,” reflects Dr. Ybarra. “Just like any other environment, it poses both risks and benefits to kids. It’s the job of adults to teach young people how to correctly identify and safely navigate the potential risks, while also taking advantage of the benefits of the online world.”

Important Strategies for Dealing with Online Bullying

Tips for Children

  • Practice appropriate online communication etiquette. Treat people online the same way you would in person—if it’s not okay to say something in person or on the phone, it’s not okay to say it online.
  • Turn off the computer or cell phone immediately if you are being bullied online.
  • Tell an adult you trust about the cyberbullying incident.

Tips for Parents and Educators

  • Educate yourself—know what cyberbullying is, who is most likely to bully or be a target, and when a child is most likely to be distressed by an online bullying incident.
  • Talk to the parents of the bullying child, who often don’t know their child is involved in online bullying.
  • If cyberbullying takes place off campus, a school may get involved if the incident poses a substantial likelihood of disruption at school.
  • Make sure your school has a bullying prevention program in place.

More Tips for Parents

  • Teach your child appropriate social skills for online communication.
  • Remind children not to give out their personal information (address, telephone number, etc.) online.
  • Set age-appropriate boundaries for use of technology and online behaviors.
  • Create open and honest relationships with your children so they feel comfortable coming to you when questions or problems arise.
  • Don’t punish your child if she or he is the target of an online bullying incident. Cutting off your child’s Internet access will not solve the problem. If your child is not upset by the incident, don’t overreact. Partner with your child to come up with a solution.

Distressing Situations for Online Targets

Dr. Ybarra notes that the majority of youth are not affected negatively by cyber bullying. Some are, however. It’s important to talk to your children about how they feel about the experience and help them deal with any negative feelings they may have as a result.

Characteristics of Online Targets

Seventy percent of online targets are 14 years and older. In 1999, the Youth Internet Safety Survey revealed that 6 percent of youth report being harassed online in the previous year. Of those who report being bullied online: 48 percent are female, and 33 percent report feeling distressed by the incident. Most episodes occurred in instant messaging (33 percent), chat rooms (32 percent), and emails (19 percent). Fortunately, 76 percent of those harassed online report the incident to a friend, parent, or person of authority.

Characteristics of Children Who Bully Online

Children who bully online tend to be older than those who bully in person. Traditional bullying peaks in middle school and drops off during the high school years. According to the 1999 Youth Internet Safety Survey, 52 percent of online bullies are older adolescents between the ages of 15 and 17 years, and 54 percent are male. Less than one third (28 percent) of bullies were known to the victims offline before the event.

by Kara Witsoe Committee for Children

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Nansel, T., et al. (2001). "Bullying Behaviors Among US Youth: Prevalence and Association with Psychological Adjustment.” Journal of the American Medical Association, 285(16), 2094–2100.