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Cyberbullying 101: What Is Cyberbullying?

boy on computer

Fancy Photography/ Veer

Cyberbullying is a term applied to a wide range of hurtful behavior that occurs through the use of digital technologies. Cyberbullying may happen anywhere online and involve social networking profiles, video and image sharing websites, blogs, e-mails, and instant messaging, or can occur through cell phone texting.

The challenge with cyberbullying is that much of it happens in digital environments where no responsible adults are present. The cyberbully is usually someone the target knows, but it also can be a stranger. According to New York State's Division of Criminal Justice Services, a few common types of cyberbullying include:

Denigration: Spreading harmful, untrue, or damaging rumors and statements online that will damage an individual's reputation.

Exclusion: Excluding a person on purpose from an online group, considered an indirect form of cyberbullying.

Flaming: Fighting that involves sending angry, cruel, rude, and vulgar messages to one individual or several individuals in a private or public online setting.

Happy Slapping: Attacking an individual physically as a "prank" or "joke" while others film the attack or take pictures to be distributed or posted online.

Harassment: Sending an ongoing series of hurtful, insulting online messages targeted to an individual.

Impersonation: Pretending and posing as someone else, then sending or posting material online with the intent to damage an individual's reputation.

Outing: Sending or posting material (such as message and images) online about a person that contains sensitive, private, or embarrassing information.

Text Wars/Attacks: Hounding a targeted individual with a high amount of mean text messages and emails.

Trickery: Engaging in deception to acquire embarrassing material that is then made public online.

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The most hurtful situations frequently involve an ongoing series of incidents that take place both in person and electronically. Regular bullying may involve face-to-face confrontations, which could include threats of physical violence. Cyberbullying is done electronically and damaging material can be quickly and widely distributed. It is often more ongoing and can involve many people.

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Sexting involves sending sexual images or text messages of a sexual nature, and it usually involves exchanges between two people who are in a personal relationship. Sexting can become cyberbullying when images are obtained through deceptive means and are distributed with the intent to damage a person's reputation.

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Engagement in cyberbullying appears to be associated with an increased use in electronic technologies. As children get older, they are provided with cell phones and are able to register or have access to social networking sites. Cyberbullying increases in middle school and is more related to personal relationship issues in high school.

Data from the Cyberbullying Research Center (cyberbullying.us) reveals that approximately 20% of teens from ages 11 to 18 have been victimized by or engaged in cyberbullying. While both boys and girls are involved in cyberbullying, girls are more likely to cyberbully others and be the targets of cyberbullies.

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Cyberbullying may lead to emotional distress, depression, school violence, and school avoidance. Many youth who are involved in bullying -- either engaged in aggression or victimized by it -- often have emotional and social difficulties already. A child's decision to commit suicide is rare and is the result of many factors, however, sometimes cyberbullying may be a trigger.

If your child is being targeted, find a variety of ways for your child to receive ongoing emotional support from family members, supportive friends, school counselors, or other services. Encourage and help your child get involved in activities that support his or her interests.

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Children with parents who are actively and positively involved in their lives engage in less risk-taking behavior when using electronic technologies, and also are better prepared to respond to negative situations.

Help your child develop effective conflict resolution skills. Advise your child never to share anything in electronic form (personal messages, photos, videos, etc.) that can be easily distributed by others to cause harm or embarrassment.

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Provide necessary guidance and support, no matter your child's age. It's important to encourage your child to talk to you, but also respect and honor your child's decision to resolve situations independently.

Advise your child not to respond quickly if someone is being hurtful. An angry and aggressive response, made in haste, can escalate the problem. Tell your child to save the harmful material as evidence.

Here are ways you and your child can respond to cyberbullies:

  • Say "stop" in a calm and strong manner. Saying "stop" does not mean retaliating. If saying "stop" once or twice is not effective, try another strategy.
  • Leave an abusive environment, or block a person from sending harmful communications.
  • File an abuse report. Most sites that allow for interactive communications have a Terms of Use agreement that prohibits anyone from engaging in hurtful communications.
  • Contact the parent(s) of the cyberbully and state firmly that the hurtful actions must be stopped. Provide electronic evidence. Try not to provoke a defensive reaction.
  • Contact your school's administrators for help if there is evidence of cyberbullying among the students.
  • Call an attorney or the police if your child is in danger. An attorney can help you take necessary legal action and the police can help you address threats of physical violence and/or sexual exploitation.

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Encourage your child to help others and discuss strategies, such as providing emotional support for the bullied, building the courage to speak out against hurtful actions, and reporting the problem to an adult who can intervene.

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Emphasize that cyberbullying is cruel, not cool, and being hurtful to others can cause damage to friendships and reputations. Emphasize that everyone should be treated with respect, especially others who are perceived as being "different" in any way. Focus on the need to treat others as they would want to be treated.

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Many cyberbullying situations involve students attending the same school, which can make it difficult for children to feel safe away from home. School administrators have the authority to intervene if a student feels threatened or unsafe at school. The district's school board, the school administrators and teachers, and the Parent Teacher Association should focus on reinforcing a positive school climate.

The U.S. Department of Education Office of Civil Rights recently issued a Dear Colleague Letter that explains the relationship between harassment, bullying, and civil rights discrimination. [www2.ed.gov/about/offices/list/ocr/docs/dcl-factsheet-201010.pdf ] Cyberbullying could result in a violation of civil rights laws that prohibit discrimination on the basis of race, color, national origin, sex (including sexual orientation), disability, and age. If a school has not been responsive and you feel your child's education is being undermined by cyberbullying or another form of bullying, file a complaint with the Office for Civil Rights.

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