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Parents can play a role in stopping cyberbullying

Published: Wednesday, Oct. 10, 2012 5:25 a.m. CDT • Updated: Wednesday, Oct. 10, 2012 10:35 a.m. CDT

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Parents being involved and knowledgeable of their children’s Internet use is a key deterrent in preventing or reducing cyberbullying.

“I think parents need to know ... it’s more devastating than [bullying] in grade school,” said Dr. Mary E. Doheny of the Family Institute at Northwestern University. “In cyberbullying, kids often pile on.”

Children could see comments about their appearance, their intelligence or criticizing their behavior through cyberbullying. Those comments then can be seen by a lot more people online and lead to even more embarrassment.

“This is the new slam book; only the anonymity is really a problem,” Doheny said. “Because they could be anonymous, it really emboldens the kids to a greater level of nastiness.”

SFlbWhat to look for

John Halligan lost his son, Ryan, to suicide after Ryan was cyberbullied. Halligan, of Farmindale, N.Y., speaks at schools around the country about the problems of cyberbullying. He visited Dundee-Crown High School in January.

Parents can look for warning signs that something abnormal is going on with their child’s technology use. In general, children who are being cyberbullied show signs of depression and stop doing things they normally like to do, Halligan said.

“Whenever your child is pulling away, and not their normal self, is always an opportunity to have a conversation, [and ask] how are you feeling?” Halligan said.

Doheny said the child might change the screen or background on his computer. The child might even stop answering the phone.

“Most of all, they’re depressed and anxious, embarrassed, and completely reluctant to go to school or social events,” Doheny said.

A youngster who is the cyberbully may stop using the computer or turn off a screen when someone comes near, or appear nervous when using a computer or cellphone. The child may be secretive of what he’s doing on the computer and spend an excessive amount of time online, according to the National Crime Prevention Council.

SFlbKeep track of what’s going on

Monitoring children’s computer activity is key.

According to the Cyberbullying Research Center, when parents monitor their children’s online activity, it can be done informally, such as through active participation in or supervision of their child’s online activities. It also can be done formally with software.

In hindsight, Halligan said he never would have let Ryan have a computer in his room by himself, especially without monitoring. Now the computer is in a common area of the house.

Halligan tells parents they also should have rules for when children use the Internet.

“You can’t let technology baby-sit your kid,” Halligan said. “You have to be actively involved in how they use technology.

“When they make a mistake, the whole world can see it,” he said.

Halligan now has software that will track Internet use. He even can read his son Conor’s chat conversations. Conor, who is 15, is aware of the monitoring his father can do, Halligan said.

“If something is very private and personal, it’s better to say it in person,” John Halligan said.

Parents never know whether the other parents are checking their children’s online activities, Halligan said.

When Ryan started using instant messaging in middle school, talking to friends online was just becoming popular.

“A lot of parents like us lost sight of how much they were using it,” Halligan said.

SFlbTo spy or not to spy

Parents shouldn’t assume they’ll be able to monitor their child’s online activity all of the time because children will find a way to hide some things, Doheny said.

For example, setting up email accounts with children can just lead youngsters to set up secret accounts, she said.

Parents shouldn’t spy on children unless a problem comes up and shouldn’t jump in right away to try to fix the problem, Doheny said. Instead, parents should have a talk to try to boost their children’s self-confidence and resilience.

Doheny recommends only putting in a device or an app to check what children are doing online if there has been a problem.

“With victims, as well, you want to encourage the same kind of autonomy ... and a sense of personal adequacy,” Doheny said.

If parents find that the cyberbullying is continuing, they should go to the service provider to investigate and remove posts, or possibly chastise the bully, Doheny said.

Keeping evidence of cyberbullying might help in finding the source of the material. Also if the case is serious enough, it might lead to misdemeanor electronic harassment charges.

“Parents might also encourage kids to keep a record of the posts and texts,” Doheny said.

SFlbCommunication a must

Children having someone to talk to also is important.

Parents having an open line of communication with their children is vital, so children are willing to speak to parents when something unpleasant happens on the Internet, she said.

“Keep lines of communication open,” Doheny said.

Parents also can make sure their child has multiple adults available whom they trust if there’s an issue the child needs to talk about. That person could be a teacher, counselor, family friend or church member.

A child being cyberbullied may be too embarrassed to talk to a parent.

“Sometimes it’s easier to talk to an adult that’s not a parent,” Halligan said.

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