Has Online Bullying Reached Epidemic Proportions?

Posted October 5, 2010 by

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Phoebe Prince. Tyler Clementi. Seth Walsh. Jessica Logan. Asher Brown. Billy Lucas.

All of these kids committed suicide after being bullied online (and in some cases, also in person) by classmates. Just how many more names have to be added to the list before we realize that cyberbullying has become a threat of epidemic proportions?

Phoebe Prince, who was from Ireland, was cruelly taunted—and physically harmed—at school and online by classmates in Massachusetts for the “crime” of dating a popular senior boy. Seth Walsh, a 13-year-old from California, hanged himself after ongoing cyberbullying over his sexual orientation. In 2008, Jessica Logan committed suicide after her ex-boyfriend circulated nude photos she had sexted to him. 

And tragically, last week, Tyler Clementi, a Rutgers student from Ridgewood, N.J., jumped off the George Washington Bridge after his college room mate, Dharun Ravi, live streamed Clementi’s sexual encounter with another male student. Ravi tweeted: “Roommate asked for the room till midnight. I went into molly’s room and turned on my webcam. I saw him making out with a dude. Yay.” The maximum prison time Ravi could serve is 5~10 years, depending on the charges. Molly Wei, the student who lent Ravi her computer to watch the encounter and stream the video, is also being charged. Some are viewing this incident as a hate crime.

As a parent, I have to ask, when is this going to stop? With all the bullying awareness sessions at school, books, articles and special assemblies, why does the situation seem to be getting worse rather than better?

Sadly, the answer is that it’s not going to stop, but I think we can do something about it. Personally, I think prosecuting students who bully is a step in the right direction. We need to our kids to understand what they are really doing when they bully or post something cruel about someone on the Internet—and we need kids who are victims of bullying to be empowered to talk to adults who can make it stop.

While I don’t completely agree with the way the father who confronted his daughter’s bullies on a bus in Florida recently took matters into his own hands, I understand his reaction. When your child is being hurt and the school doesn’t seem to be doing enough—or anything—what should a parent do?

What Parents Can Do:

  • It bears repeating: supervise your child’s computer use. Make sure the computer is in a common area, and check in to see what they’re doing online.
  • Check in with your child’s teachers or school administrators and find out what the school’s policy is on bullying and cyber bullying
  • Tell your kids not to return nasty texts or emails, but to make copies of them in order to show them to the appropriate authorities.
  • If your child seems withdrawn, depressed, plays sick a lot to avoid school and starts skipping social events, talk to them.
  • Make sure your child realizes he or she should never, under any circumstances, reveal passwords to anyone. There have been many cases where friendships have turned sour and ex-friends have revealed “secret” passwords to others.
  • If your child is being taunted online or via text, teach them how to block messages from bullies. One such plan for cell phones is AT&T’s Smart Limits.

It’s heartbreaking to realize that it’s too late for Phoebe, Seth, Jessica and Tyler and too many other kids, but I firmly believe that our actions might help prevent another child from being bullied—and might even help prevent a child from taking his own life.

What do you think? Do these suicides over cyberbullying call for tougher laws regarding invasion of privacy and malicious acts online? And how do you monitor your child’s online activities? Do you talk to them about cyberbullying, and if so, what do you say?

About

Elisabeth Wilkins was the editor of Empowering Parents and the mother of an 10-year-old son. Her work has appeared in national and international publications, including Mothering, Motherhood (Singapore), Hausfrau, The Bad Mother Chronicles, and The Japan Times. Elisabeth holds a Masters in Fine Arts in Creative Writing from the University of Southern Maine.

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  1. Katie Report

    My daughter loves playing virtual worlds like ekidnaworld.com, so cyberbullying is one of my major worries. I train my kid how to react when she encounters a bully online but still surveillance is my most trusted weapon against it.

    Reply
  2. Teresa Report

    Tonya,

    I SOOOOOOO agree with you. I was also picked on as a child — in the early 80’s especially — but there was no internet. I think the reason I survived in spite of being an outcast was because my parents taught me the necessary coping skills. It wasn’t JUST the not letting it show to the bullies — mostly, my parents worked on MY self esteem. Basically, as much as I wanted to belong to a social group, they taught me that it wasn’t worth belonging to a group of people if I had to sacrifice ME in the process.

    They taught me it was perfectly okay to be ME. Unfortunately, I think the problem with our society is that we prize conformity — we tell people it’s ok to be themselves — INSIDE the box. But if you have a person who lives OUTSIDE the box, be it lifestyle, faith, ethnicity, gender, IQ or WHATEVER — then it seems to be OK to make fun of them or cast aspersions. It appears that it really ISN’T ok to march to the beat of a different drummer.

    For example — I was the big girl during school — I wasn’t the morbidly obese person I became in my early thirties — where I topped out at 392 lbs, but I was the “fat” girl — certainly the biggest one in my class. I’ve lost the weight — finally — because I had surgery. I had a metabolic problem. Even now, I feel compelled to explain that it wasn’t my fault that I was so large — that I really didn’t eat myself into oblivion. But think about how many people ASSUME that a large person is lazy, stupid, eating themselves into a stupor, or not human just like the rest of us.

    My parents couldn’t change the fact that I was being bullied — bullies are very skilled at doing what they do behind closed doors, in the stair wells, away from cameras and other people, so it becomes a situation where it’s one person’s word against another’s. Now, of course, it’s worse because of being online. It’s the same personality that dominates in domestic abuse — in my opinion anyway. And let’s face it — we could play the “blame game” until the cows come home. It’s always “someone else” who is responsible for the situation, isn’t it?

    My parents also couldn’t change my fundamental personality — I am an extreme introvert. While I EVENTUALLY learned the social and coping skills necessary to make it in this world, it didn’t change my fundamental nature — I’m still an introvert, and I still very much care whether or not people think well of me. I don’t show it overtly. But I still care when someone casts aspersions at me.

    Thankfully, I also now have great self esteem — I like ME — just the way I am. I have no need to give up who I am, just to please someone else. If someone doesn’t like me — they can lump it. The only people that I REALLY care have a good opinion of me are those I love. And if someone else casts aspersions about me and my loved ones believe it, then I point blank tell them that they obviously don’t know me as well as they think, if they can’t figure out the truth for themselves.

    I’m very good at pointing out illogical or flawed thinking, but at the end of the day, I would exhaust myself if I tried to fight EVERY single battle defending my honor. As long as I know the truth, that’s really all that matters. I live my life with 3 central tennets — responsibility, integrity, and commitment to excellence. It’s what I teach my kids as well. As long as they live by those rules themselves, they will like themselves just fine. And then the bullies won’t have a chance…

    For what it’s worth…

    Reply
  3. Tonya Report

    I was picked on as a kid – not cyberbullied, since that was not an option in the 70s and 80s – and both of my kids have been bullied at one point or another. I think the most important thing we can do, in addition to dealing with the bullies themselve, is to give our children the tools they need to deal with the mean kids. We can’t change the world or be there for our kids every minute of the day, so they need to know how to manage a situation with someone who is mean to them. I have taught my children, since they were 5 (They are now 14 and 12) specific methods of dealing with bullies. I have taught them to stand tall, ignore the other kid(s) when possible, and to outwardly pretend the mean comments don’t hurt so that they are seen as strong rather than weak. That’s important because bullies tend to pick on those kids they perceive as weak. If they think their actions aren’t hurting you, they generally will stop; but if you cry, break down, or run away, they’re likely to keep harassing you. When a bully gets physical, I instruct the kids to go for adult help. This world is full of mean people, and we all know that kids can be the meanest. We need to give our kids skills to deal with these bullies because we are not going to be able to eradicate all of the bullies. That’s not realistic.

    Reply
    • Elisabeth Wilkins Report

      Tonya, excellent point. You’re right — studies have shown that kids who are seen as being strong and assertive are picked on less. This is a great thing for parents to work on with their kids when coaching them on how to deal with bullies. Thanks for chiming in.

      Reply
  4. Amber Report

    It makes me wonder if the teens that took their own life might have been unstable to begin with. I know making that comment will fire people up and they will not have nice things to say to me or about me.
    I have 3 boys, 17-14-11, who at one time or another have been bullied. I have taught them that no one can make them feel less of a person, no one. They are the ones in control of their life and destiny. People move on if they don’t get the reaction they are looking for.

    I also tell them that situations that seem devastating today or tomorrow will blow over. I give them examples of situations that occurred in my life or my husbands life. My biological father commited suicide but not before shooting my mother when I was 9 years old. My mother survived and went on to remarry a wonderful man who accepted me and my siblings as his own. I could let this terrible event rule or ruin my life, I choose not to. I also use events that happened in their life to show that things always get better, even if they don’t believe they will make it through the day because of something that happened.
    Maybe we are allowing our children in the world today to be too soft or thin skinned.

    Reply
  5. Joe Report

    I was a victim when I was younger. I know what these young adults are going through. Just a question . Since we are in a litigious society. Why not file a defamation suit against the parents of the bullies? Turn the tables on the bullies. Make them protect themselves and learn how to be respnsible for their actions.

    Reply
  6. Grace Report

    Carol,

    Thanks for your response! The 30 min ‘worry time’ is going to be a new great tool that I know is going to helpful!

    Thanks for the reminder that the kids know me by my actions better than my words. My mind is spinning right now because one of the older kids completely turned on me even though my actions are the same with all my kids. I guess either the child will see what was true later on or the child feels that they have to take sides. It just doesn’t make sense to me – knowing what I’ve done for this child and their age. Maybe they have anger issues they need to resolve or maybe there is undiagnosed problems.

    Reply
  7. Elisabeth Wilkins, EP Editor Report

    Dear Mary Ann: Thank you for sharing your experiences with EP readers. It sounds like this experience was devastating for your daughter, but it also sounds like you responded exactly the right way. It’s unbelievable that kids who bully online (and in person) don’t understand the repercussions of their actions, especially after hearing about children and teens who have have committed suicide after being bullied. Unfortunately, it seems cyberbullying is not going to go away, but hopefully now there will be more awareness about the problem. It’s just heartbreaking that lives have been lost and so many kids have been hurt in the process. Thanks again for commenting.

    Reply
  8. Carole Banks, Parental Support Line Specialist Report

    Dear Grace:
    It’s very sad to hear that this is happening to your family. There must be times when you are helping your kids to express their feelings, and times when you help them put it aside for awhile in order to take care of what they need to do and to get some rest. Give an age appropriate explanation to your kids. For young kids that can look like, “Sometimes when people are angry that say unkind things about each other. There have been some unkind things said about me that are not true.” You’ll want to teach your kids how to manage their feelings in socially appropriate ways. Tell them that you and they will be alright—you’ll get through this. They learn the most about you from watching how you behave and not from what you say. If you act in ways that contradict the false statements made about you, your kids will be able to see this. Rely on being a good role model to influence your children’s opinion of you. Your example has the greatest influence on your kids.

    If you catch yourself thinking about this too much, set aside a ‘worry time’ and tell yourself, “I need to wait to think about this during the 30 min. I’ve set aside for this.” Thinking about this too much will affect your problem-solving ability. It seems like it should help you find solutions but you actually will not gain insights from excessively focusing on this situation because the focus affects your mood and saps your energy. Substitute other thoughts when this topic keeps coming to your mind.

    Depending on what is said about you, it may be a crime. Talk to an attorney if you want to learn about your legal options.

    Thank you for writing in and sharing this with other families. We hope that this situation changes for you in the very near future.

    Reply
  9. Grace Report

    I’m not exactly sure of the definiton of cyberbulling, so I may be making a comment about something different.

    My estranged husband puts all kinds of lies and nastiness about me on the internet. My kids that don’t live with me do the same thing. There are A LOT of other adults and some kids have joined them in this hate campagin against me on line. In my case, it’s more adults doing this and/or instigating. By adult, I mean people in their 30s, 40s, 50s, and 60s.

    I’m trying to protect my kids that live with me from this, but a lot of it has already been said to them if they haven’t read it on the internet yet from a different computer than the one at home. I don’t allow them to interact on line with the ones that are doing damage – which has made me look like the bad guy. I have an uphill battle here to do on my own, but I’m determinded to stick to it for the sake of the kids – I’m just exhausted.

    I wish this were a crime. It might not be happening (at least as much). Or at least I would have some kind of recourse. It is destroying our family and giving the kids a very warped sense of how to treat people. And believe me, it has been SO hurtful to know what is said about me and it has been even more hurtful to lose a relatiionship with some of my kids. Understandable why some have committed suicide over this, but that is so tragic.

    Reply
  10. MaryAnn Report

    My daughter has recently been Cyber Bullied by a boy who lives in our neighborhood and rides the bus with her. Last week he made a YouTube video about her that was of sexual content and horrific, worse not one bit of it was true. All he got was 2 days suspension from schol.

    So I have to agree the Cyber Bullying has got to be stopped. I feel that their parents should be held accountable for their children. If your childs going to be on the computer, you should know what they’re doing.

    The boy who posted this horrific, derogatory video is only 13 years old.

    It’s time parents start being parents. The computer should be used for school work at this age, not for YouTube, MySpace or Facebook.

    Which even though they are suppose to be 17 years of age or older, as you can see any can use those sites.

    Reply

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