Protecting Your Kids Online Series: Cyberbullying

October 11, 2010 by David S. Seltzer

Throughout the past few weeks, I have been running a series about Internet safety and teenagers, from the perspective of an Orlando cyber crime criminal defense attorney. This week, I would like to discuss cyberbullying. Cyberbullying is exactly what it sounds like -- bullying, but online or through technology in some other way. Unfortunately, it has been in the news a lot lately, through cases of teenagers like Megan Meier, Ryan Halligan, Phoebe Prince and Tyler Clementi, who took their own lives after becoming victims of online cruelty or unrelenting harassment. These cases are rare relative to the overall amount of bullying in schools, but every single one of them was a preventable tragedy.

Bullying and other forms of cruelty have always existed, but technology now makes it possible for the bullying to follow kids home. Cyberbullying is a particularly difficult subject for parents and teenagers, because it goes to the heart of the not-quite-adult status that teenagers have. Parents don’t want to see their kids suffer (or become bullies), but kids often don’t want parents involved -- in fact, parental involvement can sometimes make matters worse. As a result, some parents don’t know their kids are being bullied until it’s revealed by accident, or until the teen acts out in some way. That means parents must find other ways to tell if their teens are being bullied. If your kid becomes withdrawn, angry or starts acting out, it could mean something is wrong -- although it could also be normal behavior. Also, look for changes in the way the teen relates to friends and classmates. Has a formerly social teenager stopped going out? Has a friend stopped returning calls? If you have suspicions, you can look at your teenager’s phone bill and social networking interactions.

Even though other people are responsible for their own behavior, there are still some things kids can do to reduce their chances of becoming cyberbullying victims. As with other online behavior, you should ask your teens to be careful about what information they share. Most teenagers have a pretty good idea of what their classmates believe is cool and uncool, and in some cases, it might be wise to keep “uncool” information off the Internet. Teenagers using social media can also use privacy settings to ensure that only the people they choose can see information about their interests or activities. Ask them: Is this information you would be willing to put on a billboard outside your school?

If someone your teens don’t normally socialize with asks to be a friend online, they should consider whether they want to share their information with that person. This could mean denying a friend request, or it could mean accepting it, but placing tight restrictions on what that person can see until the teen knows the new “friend” better. In addition, ask your teenagers to think about the consequences of sharing pictures of themselves that might be embarrassing, including “sexting” pictures and pictures of drug or alcohol abuse as well as simply uncool ones. Even if a picture was only intended for specific people’s eyes, it can easily become public if those people are not trustworthy.

If your teen tells you he or she is a victim of cyberbullying, experts suggest listening and being as supportive as possible. It might be tempting to think teens should handle this on their own, or that this is just a part of growing up, but kids want to know that their parents are on their side. If your teen doesn’t want to talk to you about it, suggest an older relative, clergy member or counselor they might trust. There are also specific actions you can take. Ask your teen if he or she would consider just taking some time away from the Internet, or the specific sites where the bullying is taking place. Use social media sites’ privacy settings to block users who are harassing the teen, and see if your phone company can block calls and texts from bullies.

If you decide to take the bullying to school authorities or others, save the evidence -- emails, texts and social networking posts that you can print out or save to a file. Consider bringing these to the attention of school administrators so they are aware of what’s going on. Bullying at school, or using school computers, can be punished as a violation of school rules. If you know the parents of the cyberbullies, you can also take the evidence to them. Your teen may not want you to do this, but if you believe that he or she is in physical danger, it may be the best choice. If there have already been physical attacks, you may want to take the evidence to the police.

Finally, parents should also intervene if the teen is in the opposite situation -- if he or she is participating in cyberbullying. Kids might believe cruelty is more acceptable or less serious when it’s online -- but you should make it clear that bullying is not okay with you, regardless of how it takes place. Ask your teen how he or she would feel if the situation were reversed. Or, ask whether he or she has done the same things that make the victim a target of bullying. Sometimes, teenagers join a bully because they believe it will help them gain more social acceptance, without thinking about how it might affect the victim. Emphasize to your teen that when someone trusts him or her with personal information or photos, he or she should try to be worthy of that trust. That means deleting embarrassing photos and refusing to share embarrassing personal information. If teens receive messages that are mean or embarrassing, they can always delete those messages or refuse to pass them on. If they are guilty of persistent bullying, consider a serious, meaningful punishment, including one that might embarrass them in front of their friends.

The West Palm Beach cyber crime criminal defense lawyers at Seltzer Law, P.A., focus their practice on defending juveniles and adults accused of online crimes. If you or your teenager are accused of a crime related to cyberbullying, sexting or other online activity, don’t hesitate to call our Miami-Dade cyber crime criminal defense attorneys for help. To learn more or set up a free, confidential evaluation of your case, you can call us 24 hours a day and seven days a week at 1-888-THE-DEFENSE (1-888-843-3333) or send us an email.