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Back in the day, the bully was easy to spot. He was the thug in the back of the classroom who'd smoke, sneer, steal milk money and give swirlies to anyone who looked at him crooked. Bullies of the 21st century aren't as obvious. They come in all shapes and sizes. They're often girls, some as young as 7 or 8. And they include the "nice" kids with good report cards, stuffed bunnies on their beds and Bible verses on their MySpace pages. In cyberspace, these bullies roam unfettered and attack without conscience. Often they hunt in packs. Their most vicious thoughts—unshackled by decorum and societal norms—find voice in e-mails, instant messages, Web sites and chat rooms.

"It can be devastating," Vicki Courtney, author of Logged On and Tuned Out: A Non-Techie's Guide to Parenting a Tech-Savvy Generation, told Plugged In. "It can escalate very quickly. And it has a group-think effect—the gang effect, if you will."

A Growing Problem
Cyberbullying refers to all sorts of online harassment, from a nasty e-mail to the deliberate, systematic destruction of a child's psyche. It can involve the forwarding of "private" information or photos, or even setting up a website specifically to mock others. Some teens have gone so far as to steal a peer's screen name and pose as that person while wreaking havoc online. Nearly one-third of teens say they've been cyberbullied, according to a 2007 study from the Pew Internet & American Life Project. And those numbers are on the rise.

While the bullies have changed, their goal is the same: tear down victims to build themselves up. They do it for a host of reasons. Low self-esteem. Trouble at home or school. In the world of cyberbullying, many bullies have been victims themselves.

"It has the same dynamic as domestic violence," family counselor Tim Sanford told Plugged In. "It's all about power and control."

Victims are especially vulnerable in adolescence, and bullies exploit those insecurities to the fullest. Today, the very aspects of social networking sites (MySpace, Facebook) that make teens comfortable interacting online are being used against them. Freedom, anonymity and the chance to address dozens of peers at a time has become a forum for abusing others, not with a punch in the nose but with a text to a friend. Bullying has gotten its high-tech makeover.

"This is nothing new," Sanford said. "Basically, it's gossip."

What makes it different, though, is the scope and speed at which that gossip can travel. Now insults can reach the world with the click of a button. Bullies can torment peers 24/7 via e-mail, text messages and online bulletin boards. Perpetrators don't even need to reveal their real names.

In her book Courtney shares the story of a spurned boy who created a satirical Facebook page supposedly hosted by his ex-girlfriend. The site derisively listed more than 100 of the girl's sex partners, including the school principal. The list was false, of course. Even visitors to the site didn't take it seriously. Yet it drew a following and, by the time Facebook shut it down, more than 100 of the girl's classmates had joined the site's buddy list. This episode forced the girl to change schools.

"Offline it would be hard for 100 people to gang up," Courtney said. "We were never able to do things like that in the past. It makes the girl politics in my day look rated G."

Leaving Invisible Scars
The effect of this kind of bullying varies from case to case and from child to child, though the victims tend to swing one of two ways: Either they withdraw and meekly accept their lot or they become bullies themselves. Victims may also become depressed, anxious and develop eating disorders—problems that can linger into adulthood.

In rare instances, consequences have been far more severe. Cyberbullying has been a catalyst in several suicides. Also, research out of Penn State University states that 75 percent of teens responsible for school shootings say they were abused and ostracized by their peers. No doubt some of that abuse took place in cyberspace.

This new dimension to an age-old problem has schools and communities on their heels. Educators often feel powerless. Dealing with aggressive youngsters at school is tough enough, but at least those bullies can be punished, suspended or even expelled. "Most schools have no clue how to deal with anything to do with MySpace or Facebook," Courtney said. "They're trying to catch up."

And what happens when the abuse occurs outside of school or on a child's home computer? Cyberbullying laws vary from state to state, and most lawmakers are reluctant to restrict free speech on the Internet. And unless someone is in imminent physical danger, local authorities may be reluctant to get involved. That leaves parents as the first and best line of defense, though experts caution moms and dads that outlawing social networking sites isn't the answer. After all, kids don't need to be online themselves to be victimized by malicious classmates.

"Let's not throw the baby out with the bathwater here," Courtney warns. "There's good and there's evil [online], and as parents we need to come alongside our kids and teach them how to use these new forums." She suggests that parents surf, text and even get their own MySpace or Facebook pages. Once adults get a feel for the Internet landscape, they can impose stronger, safer guidelines for their children.

Making the Bully's Job Harder
It's important to remember that any information put online is essentially open for the entire world to see. A common form of cyberbullying is reposting embarrassing pictures or videos of victims without permission. Therefore, Courtney forbids her children from posting any pictures of themselves in pajamas or swimwear. She also watches her 14-year-old son's online activities closely. With the help of monitoring software, she's able to see every Web site he visits and read his correspondence.

"We need to be parents first and not apologize for [monitoring children's online behavior]," she said. "We have every right to ask for that information."

But despite precautions, talking with people online carries the same risks as engaging them in person. We're all bound to run into a jerk or two. Consider these tips for protecting young people from cyberbullies, all the while reducing the odds that they will lash out online:

1. Tell your children never to give out personal information online. In addition to passwords, names, addresses and phone numbers, they should guard less obvious information that could be used against them (teachers, employer, class schedules, etc.).

2. Reserve the right to spot-check behavior. Keep computers in high-traffic areas (not in the child's bedroom), and restrict instant messaging and e-mailing time.

3. Set parameters for your child's list of "friends." Have your teen delete any known cyberbullies from those buddy lists.

4. Explore the benefits of installing monitoring software.

5. Be a good role model. If you gossip in front of children, 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.

6. Investigate the policies in place at your child's school regarding cyberbullying.

7. Pray for the victim and the bully. Both need God's help.

8. Reassure victims that they are not to blame for being bullied. Then reinforce their value in God's eyes, reminding teens that no one can make them feel inferior without their permission.

If a cyberbully strikes, Sanford stresses the importance of communicating with youngsters. Injured teens need to feel comfortable talking to you. Help them figure out solutions on their own by asking them leading questions such as, "Is this online conversation bothering you?" and "Who would be a good person to talk with about it?" Remember, bullies want to steal their victims' sense of power. When we help teens solve their own problems, it serves as a form of empowerment. It's also important not to respond in kind. Many cyberbullies want to bait victims into an escalating war of words and webpages, so similar retorts—no matter how cutting—will only make things worse. Here, the wisdom of 1 Peter 3:9 applies: "Do not repay evil with evil or insult with insult."

Still, there are appropriate ways to respond. Families should keep records of the offending acts. If a violent threat occurs, it may be a matter for school officials or the police. Sometimes educators will get involved, particularly if the damage was done on school computers or if a threat is to be carried out on campus. Some parents of victims have even talked with the cyberbullies' parents, who frequently have no clue how their child is spending time online.

Bullying. Only the method is new. It has occurred in other guises since the dawn of time and even led the psalmist to exclaim, "Those who repay my good with evil slander me when I pursue what is good" (Psalm 38:20). God heard those cries. And He hears teens' cries today. Let's make sure our ears are equally sensitive, so we can rescue young people before the invisible bruises start to show.

Published September 2007

If you found this helpful, you may also benefit from these articles Confessions of a Big-Screen Bully, When Bullying Hits Home