Blythe Newsome: As parents, we do everything we can to keep our children safe. We teach them to look before they cross the street and tell them to never talk to strangers. If our children are in danger or are being hurt, we will do everything we can to protect them. And we hope that there are laws put into place to protect them as well.
Recent events have focused national attention on the age-old problem of bullying. Social scientists say that it's no more prevalent now than it was 50 years ago. What has changed is the method used.
Today, bullying goes far beyond the schoolyards and hallways and has entered the computer world as cyberbullying. The National Crime Prevention Council's definition of cyberbullying is "when the Internet, cell phones or other devices are used to send or post text or images intended to hurt or embarrass another person."
As a mom and someone involved in the media, I thought I had a fairly good understanding of cyberbullying. Then, this past week, my child became a victim -- and I saw firsthand how helpless we are to fight it and how little we as a community are prepared to deal with it.
According to some researchers, 42 percent of teens say they have been bullied online, and 58 percent of those teens say they did not tell a parent. I am so happy my child came to me for help.
I have spoken to parents who said, "My children won't be victims of cyberbullying because they don't go on social media sites like Facebook or MySpace," or "My children go on those sites, but I monitor what they say and do." But a cyberbully can easily create an account claiming to be your child -- and there's really very little you can do to stop it.
I stayed up all night watching as things were being done online and someone was pretending to be my child. I was fixated on the screen as I watched the things being said, peers of my child getting sucked in, strangers able to comment from anywhere in the world, friends of my child commenting and pointing out to anyone involved that the account was fake.
That animal-like instinct kicked in, bringing with it the feeling that, as a parent, I have a divine right to protect my child -- and the anger and frustration that came from not being able to do so. I contacted the social-media site, only to be told that they could pull the "imposter" page, hopefully within 48 hours. They also pointed out that there was no way to prevent the person from putting it right back up there a few minutes later.
I also contacted our local authorities. I spoke to an officer who said he really didn't know much about cyberbullying and didn't know of any laws or statutes making it a crime. He was extremely compassionate and said that, as a father, he didn't know what he would do if it happened to his daughter.
I checked with the Florida Department of Law Enforcement and was told the only thing they could do was wait for it to go on for a certain period of time, when it could then possibly be considered stalking. The statutes in place right now -- and Florida is considered a "leader" in combating cyberbullying -- protect our children if the bullying occurs "through the use of data or computer software that is accessed through a computer, computer system or computer network of a public K-12 educational institution." The majority of cyberbullying between students does not originate through public-school computers or networks.
Education is going to be key to stopping this scourge. Anti-bullying programs are mandated in most schools, and policies need to be in place to protect victims. As parents, we need to be aware that our children can easily become targets for bullies. We must also be aware of how easy it is for our children to take part in the bullying merely by adding their comments or checking "like" on a social media thread.
I have talked to law enforcement officers, key political people, attorneys, media people, IT people, educators and parents. The shocking truth is that not one person knew what to do or how to even stop the cyberbullying process.
Parents need to understand that the Internet is a tool more powerful than any of us ever imagined. Keep the dialogue open with your children about bullying. If your children tell you they are being bullied online or if you discover such messages, your first response may be a strong emotional one. Be careful about expressing those strong emotions, so your children don't feel they are to blame. Let them know you will be vigilant to stop it, and be unconditionally supportive. And line up some support for yourself. Teach your children about Internet safety and keep yourself up-to-date on the latest technology trends.