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David Baxter PhD

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Bully beware: Torment on the Internet
Friday, September 24, 2004
By Ursula Furi-Perry

You're well aware of online predators and have counseled your children about the dangers of the Internet. But you may be unsuspecting of another group of bullies: your children's schoolmates.

Marissa, 17, of North Reading, found out about Internet bullying the hard way. When she was a freshman in high school, she and five other friends were threatened with graphic instant messages, detailing their planned rape and murder. The offender was promptly identified as a male classmate -- someone who sat next to Marissa in class. It took restraining orders and police interaction to diffuse the predator's threats.

Other instances of Internet bullying may not be criminal, but their emotional effects on children and teens are just as devastating.

"There's gossip, threats, rumors," recounts Erica, 18, of Billerica. "There are people who sign on as someone else just to start fights."

Bullies were seemingly always a part of childhood. "Bullying is a primitive defense mechanism," says Judith Fox, MS, LICSW, President of New Beginnings Counseling Service in Stoneham. "Children bully because they want to feel empowered through diminishing someone else's self-esteem or because they learned the behavior from others, whether that be through family and friends, or being bullied themselves in the past."

With the rising popularity of e-mail and instant messaging among children and teens, it's no surprise that bullying has been taken to the computer. "Online bullying is simply an extension of the off-line antics we all experienced at one point or another in our childhood," says Judith Kallos, CEO of and an expert on Internet etiquette. "The Internet just gives [bullies] another venue."

But Internet bullying isn't simply good old-fashioned phone gossip or the passing of a single note; with the click of a button, rumors and threats can travel to everyone in the bully's address book or on his buddy list.

"It's easier to broadcast negative information to a whole group of people over the Internet," Fox says. "Through Internet bullying, an immense amount of damage can be done to a child's self-esteem and reputation, and it may all happen in a matter of minutes."

The Internet's anonymity also makes it harder to track down bullies, who can hide behind screen names and easy-to-change e-mail addresses.

"If the bully is invisible, the child who's being bullied may experience major anxiety and paranoia," says Fox. "Imagine sitting in a classroom and wondering which of your classmates posted those negative comments about you."

Ignoring Internet bullying can have devastating consequences. "Children who bully once will often bully again, as they come to enjoy the sense of power behind reducing their environment," Fox says. "What could have been a solution now becomes a disorder."

Ignoring online misconduct will also teach children that it's OK to disregard Netiquette. "Lack of courtesy in the online environment can make it an unpleasant place and cause unnecessary misunderstandings," says Kallos. "This doesn't have to happen if everyone uses common sense and makes an effort to communicate with knowledge, clarity and courtesy."

What to do when your child is being bullied online:
  • Listen to your child, no matter how insignificant the problem may seem. "Children need to feel heard and be able to trust parents in this situation," Fox says. "Treat bullying as you would physical abuse against your child. You wouldn't ignore it if your child was slapped [by a classmate,] for example."
  • Print the evidence. "E-mail can be deleted or said not to have existed," warns Kallos. "That is why printing hard copies is important."
  • Try to determine the bullies' identity. "If you do not know who the bullies are, you can forward a copy of the offending communication to abuse@ at the ISP [Internet Service Provider] where the e-mail originated," Kallos says. "Threatening or harassing behavior is against the Terms of Service of all ISPs."
  • Go to the proper authorities. "If the bullies are schoolmates, alert the school," Fox says. "Going to parents may not solve the problem, particularly when a group of kids are ganging up on your child." Also consider reporting the behavior online. "If the bullying happened on a message board, I would report this activity to the message board owner and ask [that] the posts be removed and the members who posted them be banned," Kallos recommends.
  • Cut out communication with the bullies. Restrict e-mail to people you know, and consider changing your information if the bullying persists. "With Instant Messaging there are "ignore" and "block" features that can be used to screen out those who do not communicate with courtesy," Kallos says.
What to do when your child is bullying others online:
  • Accept that there is a problem. "Recognizing that all is not well will open up the lines of communication with your children," says Fox.
  • Try to get to the bottom of your child's behavior. "Discover where the anger is coming from," Fox advises. If necessary, speak to your child in the presence of an uninvolved third party, such as a counselor or trusted adult friend.
  • Take away the computer. "Being online is a privilege, not a right," says Kallos. "Treating other human beings poorly is not acceptable, regardless of the venue used." You may also choose to enroll your children in Netiquette classes or research acceptable online etiquette together.
  • Monitor your children's activities online. Kallos recommends keeping the computer in a highly visible area and password protecting it so that children's online activities are easily apparent. "Parents need to be involved," Kallos believes. "If more were, online bullying would be minimized."

Ursula Furi-Perry of Woburn is a freelance writer, editor and mother of a toddler boy. She's at work on her first book, Getting to Know YOU: The Teen Girl's Book of Personality Quizzes.
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