With more than half of all teenagers who go online using social-networking web sites such as FaceBook.com or MySpace.com on a regular basis, it’s not surprising that cyber bullying is on the rise.

According to a recent report by the Pew Internet and American Life Project, nearly one third (32 percent) of all online teenagers say they are victims of cyber bullying.

An insidious form of an age-old problem, cyber bullying invades the safe sanctuary of the home. Socially and psychologically stronger than their victims, cyber bullies often are particularly cruel, using new-media tools to harass, annoy, insult, embarrass, or exclude their victims 24-7 on a worldwide stage.

According to the Bully Police, a watchdog organization that advocates for bullied children, cyber bullying takes many forms, including posting embarrassing or doctored images of a child online; signing up a student for pornographic web sites, junk eMail, or other “spam”; and planting statements attributed to the victim to “provoke third-party stalking and harassment.”

As with other forms of bullying, victims of chronic abuse are more likely to develop depression or low self-esteem, bring weapons to school, or contemplate suicide, according to the National Association of School Psychologists.

The fear and anxiety caused by bullying can interfere with learning, damage the school climate, and leave victims psychically scarred.

The outlook for bullies isn’t much better. They’re more likely to struggle academically, become abusive adults, or engage in criminal behavior.

Unfortunately, the indirect, anonymous nature of the web seems particularly suited to the relational bullying favored by girls.

Forwarding private eMail, instant messaging, or text messages or posting them online without the originator’s consent represents the most common form of cyber bullying among girls.

The “cut-and-paste” ease of digital media simply exacerbates the problem. Now, instead of reaching a small clique of girls at school, bullies can reach millions with one mouse click.

That could be why 41 percent of girls ages 14 to 17 say they’ve experienced some form of cyber bullying, as compared with just 29 percent of boys in the same age range.

The likelihood of receiving threatening eMail messages also increases with age, with 15- to 17-year-old girls and “intense” internet and social-networking users facing the greatest risk.

While online bullying still lags behind the more traditional forms that occur offline, the rising frequency, mean-spirited nature, and worldwide reach of digital bullying requires a more proactive approach from school leaders, experts say.

“Bullying has entered the digital age,” writes Amanda Lenhart, Pew’s senior research specialist, in the organization’s “Cyber-bullying and Online Teens” study. “The impulses behind it are the same, but the effect is magnified. In the past, the materials of bullying would have been whispered, shouted, or passed around. Now, with a few clicks, a photo, video, or a conversation can be shared with hundreds via eMail or millions through a web site, online profile, or blog posting.”

To combat bullying in any form, experts recommend creating a school culture in which adults take bullying seriously and step in immediately to stop it, according to Ted Feinberg with the National Association of School Psychologists.

While many schools have zero-tolerance policies in place for traditional bullying, many lack clear guidelines regarding digital harassment—especially because online bullies rarely use school equipment.

Districts that do have digitally current policies address online bullying in acceptable-use policies for the internet and other new media, and through the student code of conduct—both of which require parental signatures.

Because bullying has a negative impact on a school’s climate and culture, students can—and should—be disciplined for cyber activities that harm another student or staff member, even if those activities don’t occur at school.

Online threats to harm another student, stolen passwords, and online stalking (when a bully follows the student into favorite chat rooms, web sites, or blogs) should be reported to local law-enforcement authorities.

The police also should be contacted if a bully poses as another student online, posts a fake profile, or shares the victim’s personal contact information.

Updating and rigorously enforcing policies are just the first step, however. Setting clear expectations regarding behavior, and directly teaching positive behavior, also can help reduce bullying.

To create an inclusive, welcoming climate that fosters acceptance and tolerance, many administrators are launching schoolwide character-education initiatives that focus on fostering shared values such as respect, responsibility, honesty, and caring.

Parents need to become part of the solution by learning to spot problem behaviors in their children, such as fighting, verbal aggression, being defiant, or lacking empathy for others—and seeking professional help for their children when needed.

Increased parental supervision—both at home and on the internet—also can reduce bullying, which thrives in the vacuum created by absentee adults.

Parents—and teachers—should encourage children and teens to report bullying incidents and should provide confidential outlets for doing so, to reduce the fear of retaliation for breaking the code of silence.

Parents who suspect their child is the victim of cyber bullying also can report abusive eMail messages and postings to the sender’s eMail or internet service provider.

Parents also might want to block certain IP addresses, or change their child’s eMail address or phone number, to end unwanted messages.

Bullies, victims, and bystanders all lose—and the whole school suffers—when bullying isn’t viewed seriously, or—worse—is seen as a “normal” part of growing up.

Bullying might be common, but it’s not normal. Teachers, school leaders, parents, and students need to recognize bullying as the antisocial behavior it is and do more to stop it before more children are irreparably harmed.

Links:

Bully Police

National Association of School Psychologists

Pew Internet & American Life Project