Most parents worry about their child becoming a victim of online sexual predators. A much more common and under reported problem is cyberbullying and cybergossip. The iSafe foundation reports that 58% of teens say that someone has been mean to them online; a New Hampshire study indicates one out of every seventeen between 10 and 17 years has been threatened or harassed online.

Cyberbullying takes many forms, but the most common is by using email or instant messaging. The bully sends a constant stream of vicious messages, often anonymously, to ridicule or threaten the victim. They are sent not only to the victim but also to everyone he or she knows. Frequently, the victim provides personal information to a “close friend” in an email or IM. The “friend” then copies, pastes and forwards it to others.

Unlike old-fashioned bathroom graffiti, internet slurs reach an audience of millions within nanoseconds. Old-time bullies used to torture victims only in the schoolyard. Today’s victims receive threats not only in public but also in the privacy of their own homes, making it a 24/7 problem.

Cyberbullies set up websites with names like “Kathleen T– is the biggest slut at (Our) High School.” Others use cellphone cameras to take pictures of teens in locker rooms or other embarrassing poses and forward them around the victim’s high school or college community. Bullies send thousands of text messages to a victim’s cellphone, costing them hundreds of dollars on their phone bill.

Some of the worst cases of cyberbullying are heartbreaking:

  • Girls at a high school in Chesapeake, Virginia, teased a thirteen-year-old boy online about his size and physical abilities until he considered suicide. They egged him on until he shot himself with his grandfather’s rifle, leaving an online message: “The only way to get the respect you deserve is to die.”
  • In Burlington, Ontario, teens created a website “Welcome to the page that makes fun of David Knight” with pages and pages of hateful comments against Knight, who had been kicked, punched and teased at school for years.
  • A website from students at Horace Greeley High School in New York included biographies, sexual habits, phone numbers and addresses of forty female students. This incident ended in the arrest of two seniors for aggravated harassment.

Nancy Willard, a lawyer considered the foremost expert and author on cyberbullying, believes that adolescents have not fully developed a sense of empathy toward others. While not as self-centered as small children, teens are still in the process of moral development. They rationalize cyberbullying by believing that they won’t get caught, everyone does it, and that their victims deserve it.

Cyberbullying is technically a form of “relational aggression,” a term that means attacking another person without physical force. It can take the form of excluding or gossiping or otherwise isolating or being cruel within personal relationships. Since girls are more likely to be relationally aggressive than boys, they are also more likely to be cyberbullies and cybergossips.

Parents and school administrators have little recourse under current laws that insure free speech. On July 26, 2006, the House of Representatives voted 410-15 to ban minors from accessing social networking websites in schools and public libraries, and a few state legislatures have passed similar bans. Schools in New York City now prohibit students from carrying cellphones.

However, school districts tend to lose court battles over cyberbullying. For example, the Westlake School District in Cleveland, Ohio, had to pay a $30,000 settlement for shutting down a student website that made fun of a teacher. Parents can retain lawyers and sue cyberbullies under slander laws, but they rarely do.

Many teens are reluctant to talk to parents and teachers about cyberbullying because they are embarrassed. In one case, a fifteen-year-old girl sent a boy erotic pictures of herself to attract his attention. He in turn posted them all over the Internet.

Parents may want to monitor their children’s internet activities. One suggestion is to Google your child’s name (put it in quotes) to find out what’s already posted about your child on the Internet. You can go on websites like MySpace or Facebook and view your child’s profile. Many parents are shocked to find out their daughter uses a suggestive screen name or their son has been posting intimate information in his “blog” (online diary). If you find out that your child is a cyberbully, you should either eliminate access to the Internet or monitor his or her use.

If your child is the victim of a cyberbully, it is not a good idea to retaliate – you will only escalate the problem. Instead, do nothing but keep a careful record of the offensive emails, IMs, or other materials. Change your child’s screen name. If cyberbullying is making your child depressed and anxious, consider legal action but consult first with school counselors. Encourage your teens to make “offline” friends in school activities like newspaper staff, chorus, sports and Student Council.

The problem of cyberbullying may someday be solved by new software that detects offensive materials. Parents can already use products like SpectorSoft Computer Monitoring that reveal cyberbullies’ identities.

Here are some helpful websites for parents: www.cyberfully.org; www.pbskids.org/itsmylife; and www.wiredkids.org.