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Parents guide to protecting their children from online bullies

Everyone remembers schoolyard bullies or bully “gangs” at school who verbally and physically abuse smaller or vulnerable kids. As the Internet permeates all aspects of its users’ lives, this ugly reality of many school experiences is quickly moving onto the digital world. Wherever teens congregate online, their offline behaviors are sure to follow.

Internet bullying and harassment are worse than schoolyard bullying

Unlike offline bullying, which is often limited by geographic limits, the Internet provides bullies, stalkers, and “haters” a worldwide forum. Small town or high school rumors, innuendoes, and “bad reputations” usually dissipate the farther one gets from the epicenter of such drama. There’re no geographic barriers on the Internet. News, gossip, and libel can be accessed as readily from a mobile Internet connection in Kathmandu as the Middle American high school where the news came from. The gossip’s damage doesn’t dissipate with distance.

Similarly, unlike in the real world where memories are short, the damage to a teen’s reputation and self-esteem doesn’t decrease with time on the Internet. Unlike real world memories and newspaper archives which require extra effort to store and retrieve, damaging blogs, posted gossip, and other damaging items published online have a long shelf life because these records are stored on remote servers which can be retrieved easily through search engines. Moreover, the record is digital so it can easily be copied and pasted and multiplied across many free hosted blogs. At the most basic, search engines maintain a cache of previously retrieved materials. Even if the original is deleted, determined searchers can still retrieve a cache version of the offending material. On the Internet, time doesn’t heal all wounds because reading an offending blog entry can instill the same emotional impact today as it would years ago.

The most damaging quality of Internet bullying is its high potential for abuse due to the Internet’s relative anonymity. Unlike in real life where “anonymous” gossip can often be localized to a group of initial spreaders or traced through a chain of individuals, the Internet allows for completely anonymous publishing of bullying messages, threats, and libel. Many free hosted blogs don’t require a real name. Anyone with an axe to grind can assume an identity and publish away. Furthermore, if they are extra careful, they can use proxy services to disguise their IP address, the digital ‘fingerprint’ of any computer that accesses the Internet, to hide their computer’s true location.

The power of the MOB: Social Networking sites are potent weapons in a bully’s hands

Facebook, Twitter, and Myspace, are often used by bullies to attack their victims because of their three shared features discussed above—relative anonymity, global accessibility, and archiving features. Social networking sites also possess one extremely potent feature—the power of the mob. With a click of a button, a hater or bully can access his/her target’s social network and spread damaging lies and leaked personal information. These people then talk to their own network of friends who then talk to others. The result is a rapid viral spread of lies, innuendos, and embarrassing information. The effect on a child’s self-esteem, self-worth, and dignity is devastating. Targeted individuals often suffer hounding and mass taunting of one’s own friends or social network.

What parents can do to protect their children from online bullying

Here are some easy to implement and practical “best practices” that parents can employ to help their children protect their online reputation. This list is not exhaustive at all but categorical—there are probably more specific methods parents can customize to their child’s particular online experience.

Unlike Vegas, what happens online goes EVERYWHERE

Make your children realize that whatever they do online will stay on the Internet for a long time. As the CEO of Google recently stated, due to the persistent “memory” of the Internet, many teens that did something embarrassing online or were featured online in embarrassing situations may have to assume new identities in the future If your child wouldn’t want something to hound them in the future, the best policy is not to engage in that action at all. Step your child through simple questions to ask themselves before they do anything online: is my name tied to this? Can people who know me offline identify me through my actions or things I talk about?

Be proactive with your child’s online identity.

Teach your child to use a specially created nickname for online activities that cannot be traced to their offline identities. Alternatively, they can use an existing nickname they rarely use offline and use that exclusively for online activities

Teach your kid the difference between a friend and a “frenemy”

Teach your child to be careful and extra selective when adding “friends” to their social network. The Internet is full of “frenemies”–people who claim to be friends while acting like enemies. Instruct your child to evaluate a person carefully before giving him/her access to their Facebook page or Twitter updates page. The child should consider whether they know the “Friend” enough to determine if that person can be trusted with potentially sensitive information. Furthermore, is the “friend” connected to a known bully or other person your child doesn’t get along with.

Use Internet Filtering tools to actively manage your child’s online activities

Moderate your child’s access to Social network sites. As an extreme and last measure, if you feel that your child’s online behavior may lead to possible bullying situations, and your child doesn’t want to moderate his/her behavior to counteract this possibility, you may want to restrict your children’s access to social networking sites and the Internet in general. Many commercial software packages such as those listed together with internet security software help parents block specific sites or classes of sites from access. You may want to set up one unrestricted account for yourself and a restricted account for your kids. Require your kids to access the internet through their own restricted accounts.

Alternatively, you can change your home Internet connection’s network to use OPEN DNS. This free service allows you to block social networking and blogging sites (along with porn, video sharing, hate, and other objectionable categories of websites) at the DNS level of your network router—the sites won’t even load. The drawback is that this DNS-level screening is tied to your IP address. If your internet connection changes IP address every time it is rebooted this might not be a viable option for you.

Internet usage practices are the best defense against online bullies

The bottom line is that the most effective defense against online bullies is to regulate your child’s behavior, so they don’t get caught up in online drama. Conscientious “self-policing” is the key to preventing embarrassing and emotionally traumatic situations from happening in the first place. Active monitoring of one’s online persona is essential to avoiding problems in the future.

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