Cyberbullying and Sexting: What Parents Should Know

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Bullying among children encompasses a variety of harmful behaviors that are repeated over time, according to behavioral science experts. It involves a real or perceived imbalance of power, with the more powerful child or group attacking those who are less powerful. It can take three forms: physical, verbal, and psychological.

Bullying, a form of violence among children, is common on school playgrounds, in neighborhoods, and in homes throughout the United States and around the world. Often occurring out of the presence of adults or in front of adults who fail to intercede, bullying has long been considered an inevitable and, in some ways, uncontrollable part of growing up. The Internet has offered bullies an additional avenue to exploit.

School bullying has come under intense public and media scrutiny recently amid reports that it may have been a contributing factor in shootings at Columbine High School in Littleton, CO, in 1999 and Santana High School in Santee, CA, in early 2001 and in other acts of juvenile violence including suicide. Bullying can affect the social environment of a school, creating a climate of fear among students, inhibiting their ability to learn, and leading to other antisocial behavior.

Nevertheless, through research and evaluation, successful programs to recognize, prevent, and effectively intervene in bullying behavior have been developed and replicated in schools across the country. These schools send the message that bullying behavior is not tolerated and, as a result, have improved safety and created a more inclusive learning environment.

Cyberbullying and sexting have become major problems facing school-age children, their parents as well as school personnel, according to Bridget Roberts-Pittman, Indiana State University assistant professor of counseling.

"With the increase in technological devices, children are now using such to harass and harm other children," said Roberts-Pittman. "Many children have personal cell phones making it very easy to use these devices in that way. Communication in cyberspace also seems more anonymous and seems to require less responsibility on the part of the child committing the behavior."

While bullying has long posed problems for children, it has now moved to cyberspace. Surveys show as many as 25 percent of children are reporting being cyberbullied. Cyberbullying can be defined as the use of technological devices to deliberately harass or harm another person such as through e-mail, text messaging, instant messaging, cell phones and Internet social networking sites.

Sexting refers to sending sexually explicit photographs typically via a cell phone. At least 20 percent of teens said they have sent a sexually explicit photo through a cell phone.

"Teens and their parents are not aware of the serious nature of such an act and the potentially life-long consequences," Roberts-Pittman said of sexting.

In responding to cyberbullying and sexting issues, Roberts-Pittman said parents need to be aware of major changes in a child's behavior.

"Behavior change is a part of adolescence. However, a significant change could mean the child is dealing with a serious issue such a cyberbullying," she said. "Parents should be aware of signs such as anxiety, depression, their child not wanting to attend school or making a drastic decision such as quitting a sports team."

Parents also need to be aware of what their children are doing in cyberspace. While 93 percent of parents said they knew what their children were doing online, 52 percent of children said they do not tell their parents what they do online, according to Roberts-Pittman.

"Parents have a right to check their child's phone and Internet use," she said and suggested using software packages such as Spectorsoft or I Am Big Brother. "Parents need to talk to their children about cyberbullying and sexting. Children today are so saturated with technology that they might not even recognize the behavior as a serious problem."

Teens caught sexting can be charged with possession of or distribution of child pornography and be required to register as a sex offender for many years, up to 20 in Indiana.

"The Legislature has not caught up with technology," she said. "The best message for children is 'Don't do it.'"

Roberts-Pittman said parents can take steps to help their children if they are involved in sexting or cyberbullying. The first is to listen.

"It is critical that children feel heard and understood," she said. "Keeping an open dialogue about issues such as peers is not easy, but very important for children to know that they can talk to their parents."

She said children often do not talk to their parents because they are afraid of their parents revoking their cell phone or computer privileges. They also don't believe their parents have the technical knowledge to understand. They also fear their parents will say "I told you so."

A second step for parents to help their children is to know they have options, especially in responding to cyberbullying.

"They can and should talk to the police about harassment," Roberts-Pittman said. "If the information is posted on a social networking site, they can contact the site to have the information removed."

The third step is to save all of the texts and emails sent to the child.

"It seems to be the parent's natural tendency to encourage their child to ignore the information and delete but that is the opposite of what we want children to do," she said. "Information can be tracked and traced."

Also, parents of the child being bullied may want to address the cyberbullying with the parents of the child committing the bullying.

"I only encourage parents to do this if they have the saved information to share with the other parents," she said.

As a fourth step, Roberts-Pittman said parents should share the information with school personnel.

"The collaboration between parents and school officials is critical to address the cyberbullying and sexting," she said.

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