The experience of Megan Meier is undoubtedly extreme. The 13-year-old Missouri girl committed suicide in October 2006 after receiving hurtful messages online from a boy who turned out to be the creation of a neighbor—who, prosecutors announced Monday, will not face criminal charges. But just as Meier's story became national news over the past couple weeks, the Journal of Adolescent Health published a special report in its December issue that warns of the seriousness and spread of online harassment of children and teens.
One study, part of the new report, found that of the more than 3,700 middle school students surveyed, 11 percent had been electronically bullied in the previous two months. About 7 percent actually fit into a dual category—they'd been victims of cyberbullying and had bullied, too. Four percent of those surveyed said they were bullies only. Cyberbullying involves the "repeated use of the Internet, cellphones, or other technology to send or post text or images that are intended to hurt or embarrass another person," says Michelle Boykins, spokesperson for the National Crime Prevention Council, which launched a public-education campaign on the subject earlier this year.
Other research points to a more widespread problem. About 43 percent of middle- and high-school students polled in a 2006 National Crime Prevention Council survey said they'd experienced cyberbullying in the previous year. That survey, which included more than 800 13-through-17-year-olds, found that cyberbullying was more common in females and among 15- and 16-year-olds. According to Nancy Willard, director of the Center for Safe and Responsible Internet Use and author of Cyberbullying and Cyberthreats: Responding to the Challenge of Online Social Aggression, Threats, and Distress, the practice is spreading with widening access to the Internet among children and kids' increased proficiency with technology.
Parents can help kids avoid being victims by encouraging them not to post personal information online "that allows other people to see how vulnerable they are" to teasing, Willard says, and by asking them to communicate with friends, and friends of friends, only. Having the computer in a family room or other well-trafficked area allows Mom and Dad to better observe a child's reactions and gauge whether something is wrong.
Other steps parents can take:
*Keep a record of harassing messages. If the harassment is ongoing, consider printing out the messages and mailing them to the bully's parents via a certified letter, accompanied by a note explaining that the behavior must stop or you'll take further action.
*Encourage your child not to retaliate. Doing so is apt to escalate the harassment.
*Block mean messages. Find out how to block messages sent by a specific E-mail address or screen name. Social networking websites, instant messaging programs, and E-mail providers often offer a way to block harassing messages. About 71 percent of teens think that blocking abusive messages is the most effective way to prevent cyberbullying, according to the National Crime Prevention Council.
*Ask schools to get involved. Cyberbullying often occurs away from school, but the fallout—verbal harassment and even fights—may occur on campus, experts say. "Let's remember that the majority of school shooters were being bullied," Willard says. "It is important for all school administrators to [see] this as an issue that they need to address."
Children who aren't a target may need to hear about the role they can play. "It's those young people who can help establish the social norms in online communities so that this kind of behavior is unacceptable," Willard says. Bystanders can also offer support to targets of bullying and report bullying situations to trusted adults. They should understand that forwarding a harassing message on to others can be just as harmful as writing the message themselves.
What if your child is the bully? You may want to start by probing his or her insecurities. "A lot of times, bullying is used in a negative way to achieve social status," notes Willard. "We need to figure out how to help kids achieve social status without putting every one else down."