In movies, bullies are easy to spot. Sometimes they run in packs, like the hooligans in Back to the Future or Diary of a Wimpy Kid. Maybe they're cunning intimidators, like Harry Potter's nemesis Draco Malfoy. They can don coonskin caps (A Christmas Story's Scut Farkus) or wear homegrown fur coats (Beaver's son in Fantastic Mr. Fox). But they're impossible to miss. We know them by their sneer, their snarl, the way they spit their words when they talk.
In real life, though, bullies are more difficult to identify. And it's getting harder all the time. They're not limited to the hulking thugs hanging out by the bathroom stall, stealing other kids' milk money. Now they lurk online, posting insults on Facebook and starting rumors via text message. They can be as young as 7 or 8 years old. They're often girls. They can be "good kids" who get straight A's and attend youth group. And sometimes, they don't even realize they're bullying.
Consider the case of Phoebe Prince, a 15-year-old who killed herself earlier this year after being harassed, online and off, for months. Even after she died, the bullies defamed her Facebook page . . . yet they told police they had done nothing wrong. One classmate said the harassment Prince dealt with isn't unusual. "If you want to label it 'bullying,' then I've bullied girls, and girls have bullied me," the unidentified girl told Slate.
Since some tweens and teens may not know they're causing severe damage, parents should be ever watchful of their children's online activity, to detect whether they may be silently suffering victims — or cyber bullies.
Be nosy. "We need to be parents first and not apologize for [monitoring children's online behavior]," says Vicki Courtney, author of Logged On and Tuned Out: A Non-Techie's Guide to Parenting a Tech-Savvy Generation. "We have every right to ask for that information." Spot-check their online behavior and keep computers in high-traffic areas of the house. Consider installing monitoring software.
Limit online access. Make sure your children aren't spending too much time on Facebook or texting friends. Set reasonable limits and discuss those constraints.
Protect information. Tell your children to never give out personal information online — passwords, addresses, telephone numbers — and caution them about doling out less sensitive info (class schedules, employment, etc.) that might be used against them.
Be a good role model. If you gossip in front of your kids, it's more likely they'll gossip, too — and they might do it online. Make sure they know that sending cruel messages about or embarrassing pictures of someone is no joke.
Save every message. If your children become the target of cyber bullies, they may be tempted to purge the offensive comments. But by saving or printing them, you'll have the evidence you need to report a pattern of abuse.
Most important, if a child becomes a victim, make sure he understands that it's not his fault and that his sense of self-worth shouldn't be dependent on what others think of him. That can be a hard sell. Kids naturally seek approval from their peers. So it's up to parents to reassure them that they are precious, God-given gifts, even if others are too blind to see it.
As students head back to school, cyber bullying remains a part of many young lives. But with a little vigilance, common sense and prayer, you can minimize the risks and guide your children through this season of life.
~ Find out how you can protect your kids online; take a look at
Family Safety Resources. ~
This article first appeared in the September/October, 2010 issue of Thriving Family magazine and was originally titled "Unplug the Bully." Copyright © 2010 by Focus on the Family. ThrivingFamily.com.