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Virtual danger: Cyberbullying becoming more common

Published: Friday, Sept. 28, 2012 5:30 a.m. CST • Updated: Monday, Oct. 1, 2012 10:16 a.m. CST
Caption
(Kyle Bursaw – kbursaw@shawmedia.com)
Sycamore resident Earl Gable checks in on his kid's social media pages in his home office Aug. 29. Gable and his wife Stacy, who have three children ages 13 to 16, require that all their children give them their passwords for sites such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram so that they can monitor them.

Sycamore parent Earl Gable keeps strict rules for his children’s use of social media and cellphones.

Since his teenage daughter has been the target of mean comments made by other girls on Facebook, Gable and his wife access their children’s accounts regularly to ensure they aren’t involved in cyberbullying.

“If they have it, we get the information as to how to access it any time we want,” he said, referring to his children’s online accounts.

Gable also said they try to stay in touch with other parents to monitor what their children are involved in online, as more children and teens are using computers and cellphones to communicate with and sometimes bully others.

As society has become more aware of cyberbullying in the past three or four years, more children and teens are coming forward about being cyberbullied, said Justin Patchin, professor at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire and co-director of the Cyberbullying Research Center.

High-profile situations publicized in the media have drawn attention to it, too.

“It takes a toll on kids a lot,” said Ryan Goodman, a Sycamore police detective and the school resource officer.

Patchin said cyberbullying is formally defined as willful and repeated harm through the use of computers, cellphones and other electronic devices, and is done to harass, threaten and humiliate one’s peers.

Ahna Young, clinical director of the DeKalb County Youth Service Bureau, said cyberbullying could include direct contact through texts or Facebook messages, or could involve one person posing as another on social websites.

Cyberbullying tends to start in middle school, though she said it seems to begin earlier and earlier each year, Young said. At that point, many children have cellphones, Goodman said, and are texting, emailing or interacting with others on social media sites.

With the ability to reach others any time of day often at children’s fingertips, Young said this type of bullying has become much more common.

“... Most kids have some form of technology that other kids can reach them through,” she said.

Goodman said some children or teens make Facebook or Twitter accounts under another person’s name and post unflattering photos of that person.

“I think kids don’t realize what they’re doing is bullying,” he said.

Children often don’t understand how quickly their words or photos can travel via the Internet, Goodman said.

“You can never take something back on the Internet,” he said. “We try to tell all the kids, if someone said that or sent that to you, how would you feel?”

Based on research Patchin and co-director Sameer Hinduja have conducted, 20 to 25 percent of middle and high school students have been cyberbullied at some point. They’ve done seven formal surveys in the last decade.

Only a quarter of those who’ve been cyberbullied tell an adult, Patchin said. And while it can be difficult to pinpoint if or when cyberbullying has led to suicides among children or teens, Patchin said those who been cyberbullied or bullied were significantly more likely to report suicidal thoughts.

Though they do see bullying and cyberbullying linked to suicide in many cases, he said, a suicidal case “could be a wide variety of things going on.” Clearly, most children who have been cyberbullied don’t commit suicide, he added.

Patchin said they’ve talked with many teens about cyberbullying and how it affects them, and they’ve realized there really is no escape from cyberbullying.

Because children have constant access to each other through text messaging or messages or chat capabilities on social media sites, bullying can continue at all hours of the day.

“It’s all encompassing: You really get no break,” Patchin said.

Things can get out of hand quickly if a victim or victim’s friends respond to a bully, Young said.

“And so when that happens, they almost become a bully as well,” she said.

Avenues such as social media sites allow for the tormenting to be very public, Patchin said. If a bully writes something cruel on a victim’s Facebook wall, for example, everyone is in on the joke and everyone can see what’s being said, at least from the perspective of the target.

DeKalb’s school resource officer Aaron Lockhart – also a DeKalb police detective – said police deal with cyberbullying quite a bit in the schools and many children are not telling their parents if they’ve been involved in it.

“It’s a lot easier to threaten someone when they’re not face to face,” he said. In some cases, a fight that begins at school continues online, where teens go back and forth making comments on Facebook.

Goodman said police are taking a more active role by seeing if the cyberbullying incident in question fits statute requirements for harassment by electronic means.

Children might not report cyberbullying when it occurs because they’re embarrassed or their parents aren’t supportive, he said.

One of the critical components in combating cyberbullying is a positive school climate, Patchin said. When teachers care and it’s clear to students, it creates a positive community and a buffer when bad things happen.

Children feel like adults are more likely to respond in such a climate, he said, and students who reported being part of a positive school climate are less likely to cyberbully others. Additionally, parents should take an active role in preventing or addressing cyberbullying, Patchin said.

It’s also important for families to feel empowered and set rules for use. Young said parents should establish parameters with their children, restricting access to social media or keeping children involved in other activities.

Joe and Colleen Buschbacher of Genoa closely monitor what their daughter, Ellie, a high school freshman, does online. They’ve established rules that work for their family, like creating account passwords together and checking her accounts and friends’ pages regularly.

“If you’re strict like we are about it, you can police it, you can watch it...” Joe Buschbacher said. “First and foremost, be a parent.”

Parents should make sure children are aware of the risks involved with using social media sites, Young said. Children may believe what they post on social media forums can be anonymous, but police have ways to track what has been posted.

The best thing a child targeted by a cyberbully can do is not respond or reply with, “Stop. Don’t talk to me like that,” Young said.

She recommends victims take a minute to talk with their parents and not respond immediately, if at all. Children trying to stand up for bullied friends also should remember to be respectful and not mirror the bully’s behavior.

If a victim feels threatened for his or her life or safety, police should be contacted, Young said.

To address the issue at the high school level, Lockhart said police and administrators sit down and talk with students involved in cyberbullying and have them sign a contract, agreeing not to harass each other.

Family computers should be kept in kitchen or office areas; children shouldn’t be able to use computers alone in their rooms, Lockhart said. Parents also may want to take away their child’s phone by a certain time each night.

He advised parents to look at their child’s Internet history to see what sites have been visited.

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