Cruelty Online: The Growing Problem of Cyberbullying

February 28, 2007 at 11:11 am  •  Posted in Schools and Communities by  •  0 Comments

By Holly E. Dreger, LCSW

Who Is a Cyberbully or Cyberbully Target?
What Is Cyberbullying? What Does It Look Like?
The Impact of Cyberbullying
What Help Is Available?


In the not so distant past, social cruelty or bullying was an ‘in person’ experience. Kids would lament to parents that someone was picking on them’ at school or in the neighborhood, and would seek solace in the safety of their home while confiding in their parents. Kids would be able to find comfort and escape from the pain of social cruelty when home.

The present, however, is far more painful and dangerous than many parents might believe. The home is no longer a safe haven from peer cruelty. Kids have found new ways to socially deconstruct their peers, and the bullying doesn’t just occur in one moment: it can be updated and viciously expanded upon 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. The main vehicles for bullying are the Internet and cell phones.

Who Is a Cyberbully or Cyberbully Target?

The short answer: anyone. As human beings we tend to ‘naturally’ seek retaliation when injured, and this tendency is especially prevalent in the young or immature. Learning how to apply the ‘Golden Rule’ as well as how to manage your injury when others don’t treat you in kind involves maturity, and the supportive network of family and caring friends.

Sadly, the Internet and cell phones often are treated as ‘hands off’ areas by parents. This cannot be the rule. Online predators are not just adults seeking to harm children; the predators can be other children seeking to act out their anger on your child. A recent Pew Internet and American Life Project survey revealed that 17 million kids aged 12-17 use the Internet. The Internet, therefore, plays an important part, bidden or unbidden, in the social life of your child. Even if your child is not ‘online’ he or she can become a target. To protect your child, you must be alert to warning signs that suggest your child has become a target.

What Is Cyberbullying? What Does It Look Like?

Essentially, cyberbullying is cruelty to others by sending out or posting inflammatory material on the Internet or by sending text messages with inappropriate content via a cell phone. Many kids have online journals, web pages, blogs, or belong to online ‘communities’ where other kids  ‘socialize’. Discussions between an almost endless number of peers can be carried out via ‘instant messenger’. The content of a posting or message could be anything from putting personal and private information about your child for all to see, or repeated postings to others (via Internet or cell) about your child. Worse still, another person could ‘pose’ as your child and say vicious things to someone else, starting a fight your child had nothing to do with, but must deal with the aftermath.

Scariest of all, there are websites which on the surface appear to help those in distress but beneath the surface harbor deadly advice. Individuals who post comments at such sites can encourage your child to do horrible things. I recently heard a report of a young man who had been bullied online. He sought out the help of a ‘support community’, sharing his feelings and stating that sometimes he wished he were dead. Many at the community actually encouraged him to kill himself and posted links to Internet sites which explain various ways one could commit suicide! Cyber bullies use similar tactics, and could relentlessly attack your child.

The Impact of Cyberbullying

Some warning signs that your child could be a victim of online cruelty:

  • Mood changes during or after Internet or phone use
  • Abrupt changes in social network such as loss of friends, isolation from others, throwing out items given to them by significant friends
  • Irritability, easily angered, crying, increased need for sleep or inability to sleep, nightmares
  • Avoidance of school, academic decline and increased conflict at school with others
  • Obsession with going ‘online’ or texting, leaving little time for other activities

Essentially, knowing your child well is one of the most important protective factors in preventing cyberbullying. Be supportive and do not ‘over react’. If they are confiding in you, this is a good sign that they have a precious connection with you. Special consideration should be given to children who have a baseline difficulty relating to others or are otherwise an ‘obvious target’ for cruelty. Kids typically need little if any reason to be cruel to another person, but they are especially aggressive and cruel to those with apparent difficulties of one type or another.

What Help Is Available?

If your child is a victim of cyberbullying, it is important to contact your child’s school. If there are obvious threats, call the police. Print out any postings, blogs, or texts which expose the bullying. Connect your child with a therapist so that they can discuss at length their feelings with the support of a professional.

You can also purchase software, known as ‘filtering software’, which can help prevent your child from receiving selected information as well as prevent them from going to certain websites. Filtering software, however, is not available for cell phones, and is not always effective in preventing messages from reaching your child. Other software that can be purchased records all messages (instant messages) sent to your child so that you can see what others are saying (or sending) to your child.

You should educate your child about cyberbullying and the harmful effects being cruel can have on others, even if your child cannot ‘see’ the effects. Teach them the “Golden Rule’, and monitor your child’s activities online.

Computers should not be kept in your child’s room. Instead, keep the computer in a place that is public and easily supervised. Inform your child that you will monitor the sites they go to online, as well as their phone use.

Consider a ‘curfew for the cell phone’ to further protect your child from after-hours messages or unsupervised use. Set time limits for online use and encourage your child to interact in ‘real time’ with peers through organized activities (e.g. sports, drama club) which promote the development of a child’s strengths and ability to interact positively with others.

Help your child understand that who they are inside—their character, integrity, values, mores, and uniqueness—is far more integral to success and health than what another person might judge them as being. Finally, encourage your child’s school to have a policy to address cyberbullying, and share what you know about this subject with other parents.

Additionally, Web sites are available for information about cyberbullying:


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