In a previous blog post, I wrote about one of the potential dangers of social networking—Internet predators. This popular topic comes with its share of myths, but when we strip away the misconceptions, parents and educators can better equip their teens to navigate the potential pitfalls of online interaction. Social networking brings with it a need for new rules of engagement. Online socializing is like other forms of socializing: it is helpful to know the ins and outs, the danger zones, and the potential problems.
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Since the sad story of Megan Meier’s suicide, the threat of “cyberbullying” has become a household word. When her “relationship” with Josh Evans, someone she “met” online, turned into name-calling and insults, she hung herself in her bedroom closet. Josh was not actually a teenage boy, but a 47-year-old woman who lived down the street. The last message Megan received from “Josh” was, “The world would be a better place without you.”
Compared to online predators, cyberbullying is a much more common occurrence. Cyberbullying is the willful and repeated harm inflicted through the medium of electronic text and pictures. Bullying, of course, is not a new phenomenon, but with the Internet at a bully’s disposal, the sky is the limit on nasty things that can be done to a teen online. Some will write insulting words directed at someone else. Some write notes filled with gossip and rumors online for others to see. Some might put up embarrassing pictures of others or even digitally impose a person’s head onto a naked body and pass it around online. Some cyberbullies post others’ pictures on sites like “Hot or Not” for strangers to rate how ugly they are. There are even cases of people creating websites dedicated to how much someone hates a person. (See one of the videos from NetSmartz about cyberbullying)
Cyberbullies may be bullies at school as well, but they may also be those who are commonly bullied—the Internet is a way for underdogs to retaliate. Cyberbullies can use the buffer of the Internet to say to someone what they would never say in person.
To make matters worse, things posted online are accessible for all to see and difficult or impossible to erase. Cyberbullying is not a social network phenomenon: it can be done through online chat, text messages on cell phones, emails, or instant messages.
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Who is at risk of being bullied?
Anyone is at risk. Often teens who struggle with obesity or who are perceived as being gay or lesbian are prime targets. Teens who are desperate for attention or acceptance are often targeted. Often alternative thinkers or those who are unwilling to play social games are cyberbullied. Parents ought to be aware of signs of being cyberbullied such as a teen being particularly depressed, anxious, or angry after using the Internet.
It is also important for parents to prevent their own children from cyberbullying. Sometimes one act of bullying begets another. It is helpful to give a teen guidelines for their online interactions. Teach them to ask themselves: Am I showing respect online? How would I feel if this were done to me? What would a trusted adult think about what I am posting? How would I feel if I knew others could see what I’m doing? How does this action reflect on me?
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(I want to again encourage our parent-readers to watch the FRONTLINE documentary, “Growing Up Online.” It is a very good introduction to the social dynamics among teens who use the Internet. Be advised: this is a real and raw look at the world of Internet use among teens. Some words and conversations may not be appropriate for children.)