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Cyberbullying: A Back-to-School Survival Guide

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Guest blogger Gina Kaysen Fernandes: When Jennifer Bishop Jenkins first noticed changes in her daughter's behavior, she assumed it was typical teenage moodiness. But as the bad moods intensified, Jennifer realized that something more sinister had happened. She soon learned that her daughter, Amanda, had become the target of a cyberbully whose relentless attacks had shattered Amanda's self-esteem and ripped apart her circle of friends. "It really, really hurt," is how Amanda now describes the months of online insults and ridicule.

Amanda's story is not unique. Sadly, her experience is similar to that of a staggering number of kids who've experienced the emotional pain of online harassment. Cyberbullying has reached epic proportions in our nation's schools, yet many moms are still in the dark about how to deal with the problem. 

According to recent surveys, 90 percent of middle-school students have had their feelings hurt by something posted online. One hundred and sixty thousand kids miss school each day because of it. But despite these statistics, only 15 percent of parents polled have even heard of cyberbullying

According to the nonprofit group Make a Difference for Kids, 43 percent of teenagers have experienced online torment. Girls are twice as likely as boys to be victims and perpetrators, using e-mail or social-networking sites to engage in social sabotage. Bullying used to happen only in school or on the bus; in this high-tech era, cyberspace is the brazen bully's new frontier. 

The anonymity of the Internet gives bullies more incentive to lash out. "The Internet is the new bathroom wall," says Julie Hertzog of the bullying-prevention organization PACER Center. "If you don't have to see a person's face, you're more removed from it. It allows someone to be more vicious." 

Kids now have 24/7 access to cell phones, text messaging, instant messaging, e-mailing and social networking sites, and bullies can use each of these options to harass and intimidate their classmates. The emotional fallout from cyberbullying is the same as that of a traditional bullying attack, only there are no bruises to kiss or scratches to put Band-Aids on. Negative written words cause the same feelings as spoken ones do, including depression, anxiety and low self-esteem. Experts warn that if these emotions are brushed under the carpet, the victimized child may resort to delinquency or even suicide. 

As a teacher in the Chicago area for 25 years, Jennifer Bishop Jenkins admits she has "seen it all," yet she still had trouble detecting the telltale signs of cyberbullying when it happened to her own kid. "She had the worst year academically," recalls Jennifer, who became concerned when Amanda's grades dropped dramatically. The 15-year-old also started having problems sleeping, became short-tempered and was suddenly extremely self-critical. She complained that she had no friends, acted clingy at home and cried more often. 

Initially, Amanda stayed tight-lipped about the source of her angst, but eventually she admitted to her mom that another girl at school was bullying her on Facebook, writing hurtful messages such as, "You're stupid. We hate you." Jennifer immediately felt compelled to do what she could to stop the harassment and protect her child. "I'm hands-on," she says. "I'm not afraid to drive over to a parent's house." So she confronted the bully's mother and showed her a printed transcript of the perpetrator's abusive messages. Jennifer also complained to school administrators, who issued a no-contact order between the girls -- which seemed to resolve the issue. 

While Jennifer's approach appears to have worked, not all experts agree that "mommy to the rescue" is the best solution. "We want our kids to fight their own battles," says Alexis A. Moore, a cybercrime expert and founder of the nonprofit organization Survivors in Action. "I think we can do a lot of things before it gets to that point." She suggests starting an open dialogue with your kids about cyberbullyingbefore it becomes an issue. Ask them whether they know of friends who've been bullied online. "Don't overreact to the answer, and try to keep a straight face," advises Moore. 

Moore says she has seen a 33 percent spike in cyberbullying among tweens and teens over the past year. Many moms declined to share their story with momlogic because of concerns about how others would judge them, but Moore says it's important that parents don't blame themselves, because it's not always easy to spot a cyberbullying problem before it gets out of hand. As a victims' advocate, part of Moore's work involves removing the stigma associated with cyberbullying. She points out that, as many parents are struggling financially (working long hours or juggling two jobs), they're relying on technology to assist with childcare. "There's a lot of pressure," notes Moore. "We're not always able to be 'top mom'. Sometimes the best babysitter is the Internet." 

Kids may be reluctant to talk about the harassment, either because they fear their parents won't think it's bullying, or because they're worried that their parents will overreact and take away their online access. Julie Hertzog suggests that you begin talking about Internet safety from the get-go. "Start that conversation before they have the technology, when they're lobbying for the cell phone," she says. 

Experts recommend setting parameters on computer access, too. "Kids know when their parents are looking over their shoulders -- and will change their behaviors," says Herzog. She warns that youngsters should never have computers in their bedrooms, and urges parents to place time limits on Internet activities. If your child is on the computer at odd hours, that could be a sign of trouble. "They're probably checking to see what's being written about them," says Hertzog. 

If you suspect that your child is being bullied or has poor online judgment, do your own investigation work. Moore suggests creating a phony account on Facebook or MySpace and attempting to join your child's network as a "friend". If you're accepted, you can monitor and observe his or her activities undetected. As for Jennifer, she openly keeps tabs on both of her daughters' Facebook pages now, which is part of the deal they struck in the aftermath of the cyberbullying episode. "When they do inappropriate things, I call them out on it," she says. 

There are also many brands of cyber-monitoring software out there, which allow parents to keep an eye on their child's activity (although not all parents are comfortable with the idea of spying on their kids). Moms should also look closely at their kids' cell-phone bills. You can request detailed billing statements that allow you to read text messages and see call logs. (Moore offers lots of other tips in her upcoming e-book, "99 Things Parents Wish They Knew before Cyberstalking Victimized Their Child," which is due out next year.)

As the new school year begins, Amanda has a chance to restart her social life with a new group of friends. She still has a presence online, but she's trying to focus on more real-world activities beyond the Internet (such as volunteering at an animal shelter). Her mother sees this as a welcome change. "These are positive things that rebuild her self-esteem and make her feel better about herself," says Jennifer.


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