“I have nobody. I need someone,” said the handwritten note in the video. It was posted on YouTube last year by a teen from Port Coquitlam, British Columbia named Amanda Todd.
In the video, the 10th-grade student holds up flash cards that describe how she was cyberbullied by a stalker. The perpetrator blackmailed her with a topless photo she had once posted online. When she switched schools and made new friends, her tormentor released the photo again, leading to more bullying.
On Oct. 10, Amanda took her own life.
As a parent it’s easy to shake your head and think, “This won’t happen to my child” or “there’s nothing that I can do.” But experts on cyberbullying say there are plenty of things parents can teach their kids even if they are not being harassed.
“The key is they need to do something; they can’t just be the quiet bystander who does nothing,” says Meagan Butler, a guidance counselor at Austin’s Liberal Arts and Science Academy. One of the most important things to do is support the victim, she says.
“Supporting the victim makes them feel that they are not alone. Just saying, ‘I disagree with all that stuff that was said about you on the website …’ just that is what can keep kids alive.”
Butler, who wrote her master’s thesis on the topic and has given PowerPoint presentations to parents, also stresses that parents need to warn their kids about the consequences of posting something inappropriate. “Cyberbullying can happen for the rest of your life. It’s hard to make it go away.”
Larriann Curtis, the parent-education programming chairwoman for the Texas PTA, offers this advice: “Never put anything out there you wouldn’t be proud to show your grandmother or hang on a poster in the hall.”
In Amanda’s case, her problems started in the seventh grade when she first posted the photo. Three years later, the photo still was following her around. “I cried all night, lost all my friends and respect,” said one of her index cards. “I can never get that photo back. It’s out there forever.”
“To the targets of cyberbullying it feels like there’s no escape; there’s no end,” Butler expressed. “It feels more overwhelming than in-person bullying.”
What can parents do to protect their children from online bullies?
“Keep records,” said Curtis, who gives talks at Austin school district campuses. “Do not erase the messages.” Taking screenshots is another way to make sure the offending comments are preserved as evidence.
They also need to report the problem to school administrators. “It takes a lot for kids to report bullying,” she says. “Be an advocate for your child.”
She recommends that parents resist the temptation to confront the bully’s parents face to face. “Go to your principal first,” she said to parents during a talk at Kealing Middle School last year. And if school officials don’t take action, “make it happen; don’t give up … be brave and do it again.”
Because cyberbullying often happens off campus and not during school hours, Butler warns, school administrators don’t always have jurisdiction. If an offensive post is reported, “the school can say, ‘We would like for you to take that down.’ But unless it causes a significant classroom disruption or unless people are looking at it at school … we don’t have jurisdiction to say, ‘You have to take that down.’”
She adds that typically students will take something down when asked to do so.
Asking for the school’s written policy on cyberbullying or requesting that the bully be moved from their child’s classes are two other strategies for parents but they have to verify who is doing the bullying.
One verification strategy employed at LASA is to empower the bystanders. “I’m always looking for who knew about it and who said something,” Butler says. This can only happen when kids are willing to speak up; many don’t want to be labeled tattletales.
Parents can help by teaching their kids the difference between tattling and telling or reporting. “Tattling is when you’re trying to get someone in trouble,” says Curtis; “telling is when you’re trying to keep someone out of trouble.” By telling an adult, students can help protect victims and keep perpetrators from getting themselves into more trouble. Slipping an anonymous note under the principal’s door can alert teachers about offensive posts.
Another way to keep offensive content off the Internet is for kids to stop sharing their passwords or cellphones. “I’d rather you share your toothbrush or your sandwich than lend someone your cellphone,” Curtis says. This prevents hoaxers from posting insults or photos using the account of the cellphone owner.
As for monitoring, Butler, who views the Internet as a public space, believes that parents should periodically check in on their children’s Web activity. “Absolutely you should monitor what your kids are posting online. … Are you going to drop an 11-year-old at the mall and say, ‘See you later’?”
But it’s important that parents be transparent and let their kids know that they may pop in from time to time. Butler doesn’t think that parents should read everything, but they should pay attention to cues that might indicate trouble such as a “child jumping each time they get an email.”
Most parents will never face a situation as dire as Amanda Todd’s, but a recent study in the academic journal Children and Youth Services Review found that more than 50 percent of students surveyed admitted they had either been victimized by cyberbullies, been perpetrators or both. Parents can protect their children and perhaps save future victims by sharing some of the tips offered by Butler and Curtis.
There are also activities and educational programs available. At LASA, about 50 students are getting ready for the national Day of Silence, in which students take a daylong vow of silence, hoping to draw attention to the bullying faced by lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender teens. The program, which will take place on April 19, raises awareness for all the voices that have been silenced by suicide or death from physical attacks. “A lot of kids have a bullying history so they can relate to LGBT kids who have also been bullied,” said Butler who pointed out that many kids participating are not LGBT teens. “A lot of them are allies or just people who want to create a safer space in their school.”
The Texas PTA offers several programs about bullying that can be ordered online. “Stop Bullying was requested 56 times during the 2011-2012 school year by PTAs all over the state, making it the most requested parent education program Texas PTA offers,” wrote Curtis in a recent email. “NetSmartz, which is a multimedia program about Internet behavior and safety (including cyberbullying), is our second most-requested program.”