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How Can Parents Prevent Cyberbullying? 

click to enlarge Dr. Mary Ann Donnelly-DeBay - MATTHEW THORSEN
  • matthew thorsen
  • Dr. Mary Ann Donnelly-DeBay

Today's kids have the world at their fingertips. Smartphones, tablets and laptops offer countless opportunities for learning — and, potentially, bullying.

This month, Winooski school psychologist Dr. Mary Ann Donnelly-DeBay describes this behavior, and how parents can help kids avoid it.

KIDS VT: What's the nature of most cyberbullying?

MARY ANN DONNELLY-DEBAY: It can be someone sending mean messages or threats, spreading rumors online, posting hurtful or threatening messages, stealing a person's account information, pretending to be someone else online, sending unflattering or sexually suggestive pictures or sexting.

KVT: How often do kids approach you with concerns about it?

MADD: It comes up almost every day. Sometimes it's around Facebook, but texting seems to be the biggest issue. Often someone gets cyberbullied and then retaliates.

Studies show that 90 percent of adolescents say they've seen it, and nine out of 10 of those haven't reported it to anyone. It can happen 24 hours a day, so even if it doesn't happen in school, it can still affect kids chronically.

KVT: What are some of the consequences of cyberbullying?

MADD: It's been associated with depression, anxiety, social isolation, violence, even suicide. There's a term for that now: bullycide.

Many times bullies themselves suffer from anxiety or depression, too. It's easier to perpetrate than other types of bullying because it's anonymous. Kids who wouldn't otherwise bully in person may be more apt to do so online. In a face-to-face situation, many more kids would stand up for the victim or intervene.

KVT: What should parents do if they discover their child is being cyberbullied?

MADD: There are cyberbullying and sexting laws. If it happens on school grounds, it's a school issue and should be brought to the attention of administrators or the public-safety officer.

If it's happening outside of school, parents should save a screenshot or copy of a text and bring it to the school administration. Parents can also contact their cellphone companies to get a new number, and learn how to block bullying users from social-media sites.

KVT: At what age should parents begin talking to their kids about it?

MADD: It's now common for kids in the 3rd grade to play interactive online games where they get messages from others, so start that social-media training early. One common mistake is to take the cellphone or computer away from a child who is a victim. Parents are trying to protect them, but all that does is prevent children from telling an adult in the future, because they don't want to lose this vital connection to the world.

KVT: How should parents begin this conversation with their kids?

MADD: Start by explaining what cyberbullying is. Encourage kids to tell an adult if they witness or experience it. Kids need to learn that people they communicate with online aren't always who they say they are. Young people should never share personal information online and should be taught that anything they post online or send through a cellphone is not private.

Parents should respect their kids' privacy but also have access to their accounts and review their kids' computer activities periodically. Also, keep the computer in a busy area so there can be more conversations about what they're doing, and establish rules about turning cellphones off at a certain time each night. Finally, let kids know that no one deserves to be bullied.

Find more cyberbullying prevention resources online at dosomething.org.

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