Ryan Halligan was a normal 13-year-old middle school student. His parents didn’t suspect that one day they would find him dead from suicide. They didn’t understand what was taking place behind his bedroom door.
Inside his room was a virtual world of torment. Ryan was being bullied at school and the harassment continued online in his own home.
After Ryan’s suicide, his dad turned on his son’s computer. Only when he began digging did he see the overwhelming negativity that was placed in this young boy’s life. He even said that reading his son’s instant messages (IMs) were almost as hard as losing him.
In those IMs, Ryan’s dad saw degrading, cruel messages from bullies that were at his school. Because Ryan had gotten online and tried to fight back, it exacerbated the problem. Instead of turning to his parents or another trusted adult, Ryan turned to a peer (one he met online) that subtly reinforced ideas that the bullies had planted.
According to isafe.org, in one IM conversation Ryan says:
“Tonight’s the night. You are going to read about in the paper tomorrow.”
The other boy:
“It’s about time.”
His parents are left wondering what could have been.
What’s really tragic about this story is that it’s not uncommon. All too often our children hear bullying in their schools (refer to last week’s post) and then come home to even more cruel taunting at online.
Kylie Kenney, an eighth grade student from Vermont, lost two years of her life as a result of cyber bullying from classmates, according to cyberbullyalert.com. From junior high through her sophomore year of high school, Kylie was forced to deal with websites created by her classmates that featured names like “Kill Kylie Incorporated” that were filled with threatening, homophobic remarks about the young girl. These hurtful kids obtained screen names with handles close to Kylie’s name and used them to make suggestive remarks and sexual advances on Kylie’s teammates on the field hockey team. As a result police filed charges of harassments against the individuals responsible.
All you have to do is type cyber bullying in your web browser and inevitably you will come across the well known and local case of Megan Meier.
Megan Meier was a 13 year old from Missouri who struck up an online friendship on the popular social networking site MySpace with a person she believed was a new boy in her hometown. In actuality, the “friend” was a group of individuals, including adults, who were intent on humiliating the poor girl because of a friendship with another child that had gone awry. Megan was very upset when she found out the truth, then later committed suicide once the friendship had terminated. The horrifying case stunned the community and caused state government officials to pass some of the harshest cyber bullying laws in the country, according to cyberbullyalert.com.
Cyber bullying is a growing problem in our youth culture. What used to be something that took place at school now follows students where ever they go. And often times, when masked by a computer screen, students become drunk with anonymity and say the harshest of things.
Statistics vary as to how wide this has become, but according to the Cyberbullying Research Center, in the article Cyberbullying: Identification, Prevention, and Response, 20 percent of 11-18 year olds have experience repeated harassment online.
i-Safe.org reports that 42 percent of kids have been bullied while online and that one in four have had it happen more than once. It also reported, and maybe more frightening, is that 58 percent of kids have not shared this information with their parents or a trusted adult.
This problem is unique to this generation. It wasn’t something that I ever had to handle but it is something that is here for good. Our students and children will grow up dealing with this challenge. As parents, we can be aware of what the dangers are, where they lurk and how to respond to them.
So where do we start? It starts with making sure our own children know what cyber bullying really is.Commonsensemedia.org offers some great advice as to how we should go about doing this.
Parent Tips For All Kids
- Give them a code of conduct. Tell them that if they wouldn’t say something to someone’s face, they shouldn’t text it, IM it, or post it.
- Ask your kids if they know someone who has been cyber bullied. Sometimes they will open up about others’ pain before admitting their own.
- Establish consequences for bullying behavior. If your children contribute to degrading and humiliating people, tell them their phone and computer privileges will be taken away.
Parent Tips For Elementary School Kids
- Keep online socializing to a minimum. Let your kids use sites like Webkinz or Club Penguin where chat is pre-scripted or pre-screened.
- Explain the basics of correct cyber behavior. Tell your kids that things like lying, telling secrets, and being mean still hurt in cyberspace.
- Tell your kids not to share passwords with their friends. A common form of cyber bullying is when kids log in to another child’s email or social networking account and send fake messages or post embarrassing comments. Kids can protect themselves from this by learning early on that passwords are private and should only be shared with their parents.
Parent Tips For Middle School Kids
- Monitor their use. See what they’re posting, check their mobile messages, and let them know you’re keeping an eye on their activities.
- Tell your kids what to do if they’re harassed. They shouldn’t respond or retaliate, they should block bullies immediately, and they should tell you or an adult they trust. They shouldn’t delete the messages because in persistent cases, the content should be reported to a cell or Internet Service Provider.
- If your kid is doing the bullying, establish strict consequences and stick to them. That goes for cruel or sexual comments about teachers, friends, and relatives.
- Remind them that all private information can be made public. Posts on friends’ walls, private IMs, intimate photos, little in-jokes can all be cut, pasted, and sent around. If they don’t want the world to see it, they’d better not post or send it.
- Don’t start what you don’t want to finish. Chat in online games and virtual worlds can get ugly fast. Make sure your kids are respectful because hurtful retaliation happens all the time.
Parent Tips For High School Kids
- Tell kids to think before they reveal. At this age, kids experiment with all sorts of activities, many of which should not be made public. Remind your teens that anything they post can be misused by someone else.
- Remind them they aren’t too old to ask for your help. There are things some kids can handle on their own, but sometimes, they just need help. Coming to their parents isn’t baby-ish, it’s safe.
Beyond these practical tips, I believe the biggest key to taking care of this problem is teaching our children the value of the other person. Our students live in a culture (and so do we) that places value on the material. If you live, work, wear, drive, look the way culture deems right, then you have value. If you don’t have those things going for you, then you are made to feel like you are somehow less valuable.
To teach our children that their worth is not found in the material, the temporary is to show them that there is much more to life than just amassing wealth/stuff. I cannot stress enough, the importance of serving and making sure that your student serves alongside you. Start when they are young and make it part of your family fabric. If your child is older, there may be some resistance. But be persistent. When your child sees the difference they make in a person’s life, it may just be that break through you’ve been waiting for.
What do you suggest to combat this growing problem in youth culture?