Thanks to the way teenagers rely on the Internet for their socializing, “Dear Diary” has turned into “Dear Everyone.”
As a byproduct, teens now use computers, cell phones, BlackBerrys and other technology to cyberbully without considering the moral consequences of their actions.
That was the main point of clinical psychologist Emily D. Moore’s Wednesday-night presentation, “Cyberbullying in the Facebook Age,” at Santa Fe Preparatory School. Though the event was open to the public, only about 20 people — presumably parents — attended.
Cyberbullying — in which perpetrators use technology to harass, threaten, humiliate or even “out” someone — has been a common topic in the media in the past six months “because of all the deaths,” Moore said.
Last September, Tyler Clementi, a New Jersey college student, jumped of the George Washington Bridge after his roommate allegedly posted a video of Clementi having sex on the Internet. In 2005, Jeffrey Johnston hanged himself after being continually harangued online for being gay, even though he wasn’t (his tormentor was, Moore said). Jessica Logan committed suicide in the summer of 2008 after her ex-boyfriend texted photos of her nude to fellow students.
In the past, a victim could conceivably escape bullying by transferring to another school, Moore noted. That’s not possible today.
“The Internet is everywhere,” Moore said.
Often teens engage in cyberbullying in retaliation for a slight, or out of boredom. Some are simply power-hungry, like the old-fashioned schoolyard bully.
The fact that the victim is invisible, and that many computer users believe the Internet ensures them anonymity, makes the offense even easier to commit, because teens often see real life and online life as two very separate worlds.
Proxy bullying can take place when someone hacks into a woman’s private information (name, address, phone number, website), and sends out a mass e-mail missive to potential predators, saying the victim is a good-time girl waiting for a call.
In other cases, the situation can become like America’s Funniest Home Videos, only without the participant’s permission. Teens videotape one another in embarrassing situations and then text (or sext, if the images are provocative) those images to friends.
Still, children may be wary of telling their folks they are being cyberbullied, Moore stressed — particularly if they feel that Mom and Dad will pull the plug on computer privileges.
That tactic won’t work well, Moore said — “It’d be like taking away the keys to the car and saying to your kid, ‘You’re never going to drive.’ ”
However, parents can draw up an Internet-use agreement with their children. This should be done early on, Moore said, with kids understanding they can only use the computer for so many hours and for certain purposes, and with Mom promising she won’t overreact if her daughter opens up about being bullied or about inappropriate usage of the computer.
Parents need to build and maintain open communication and a relationship of trust with their children on this issue, Moore said. Parents should emphasize the need for teens to take moral responsibility for their actions as well.
Moore said teens are always going to outmaneuver their parents when it comes to using technology. Still, parents possess influential resources.
“Remind them that you will be part of their life forever, and ask for their respect and love and trust on that level,” she said. Also, remind children, “I’m going to be Googling you regularly until you are 18.”
Other practical tips for dealing with cyberbullying: Save and print out the offending documents for evidence (and do not respond via e-mail as the bully can use that evidence against you), and draw your child into the conversation about how to proceed. Don’t confront the bully’s parents without gaining your offspring’s cooperation, for instance.
And if the incident involves the school, parents have the right to demand accountability from principals, head learners and directors.
Jim Leonard, head of school for Santa Fe Prep, said he knows of fewer than 10 incidents of cyberbullying involving the school in the past five years. In each incident, school officials intervened, and there has not been one incident of repeat behavior, he said.
Contact Robert Nott at 986-3021 or firstname.lastname@example.org.