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Encouraging Heroes. You can be one too.

–Philip J Reed, on behalf of Westwood College

Here’s a brief experiment: think about the word “cyber-bullying.” Think about all the images that term conjures up for you. Think about the news reports, the torment, and the tragic endings. Think about everything that comes to your mind when you hear the word. It’s a lot, isn’t it?

Now transport yourself back in time ten years. Or even five years. Or only three. How much did you hear about “cyber-bullying” then? Would anything have come to mind at all?

The fact that this sociological (and sometimes criminal) phenomenon is so young and yet already has gained so much traction in the world, and affects so many people, and alters so many lives irreversibly is quite scary. It’s an unfortunate fact of life today…but it’s not unavoidable. We can take steps to protect ourselves from cyber-bullying, and we can take steps to protect our children.

Here are five things every parent can do to protect their children from cyber-bullies.

1) Make them aware of the danger. Education is crucial. While many young people are aware of the existence of cyber-bullying, and may even have an idea of what it entails, it’s not unlikely that they remain unaware of the seriousness of the repercussions. Many children and teens have a mentality that might prevent them from thinking that it will happen to them, or that it will be a serious danger to them. They may see the worst case scenarios unfolding for other people (or even their peers), and not believe that they are in any real danger.

So talk with them. Explain the risks. Make clear the severity and the seriousness. Cyber-bullying at its weakest can be simply unpleasant, but a devoted cyber-bully can circulate hurtful information (or images) that can haunt a child for a lifetime, and once those materials start circulating, there may be no stopping them.

Make sure your children are aware of the seriousness. The cyber-bullies certainly are.

2) Monitor their online presence. Cyber-bullies are often people who know your children personally. They can be friends, family members, peers, or anybody else that they have interacted with directly. They can also, however, be strangers on the internet. They may simply visit the same websites as your child, post on the same message boards, or read the same content. So what is your child posting in these places?

A reveal of any private information on even the most benign websites can turn your child into a target. Street addresses and phone numbers are obviously off-limits, but does your child know enough not to post his or her last name? Or the town he or she lives in? Cyber security is a bigger deal than you may realize, and it encompasses more information than you might think Even relatively trivial details like the name of a pet or the street they grew up on can be used to guess their passwords or solve their security questions, thereby providing access to information they thought was secure.

Additionally, are they posting hurtful comments themselves? If your child has a habit of igniting debate (or arguments) online, they can become the victim of cyber-bullies seeking vengeance or reprisal for something that was said.

Find out what your child is posting online. Find out if they are fueling arguments, or wisely backing away. And above all, make sure they are not posting anything personal!

3) Limit the time they spend with their computers and cell phones. Nobody likes to be without their electronic devices nowadays, whether they’re computers, cell phones, iPods, the Nintendo DS…or any combination of the above! But constant usage of these devices means that your child is always reachable by the cyber-bully. If your child is inseparable from his or her cell phone, that also means that the cyber-bully will be able to reach then 24 hours a day, and the cyber-bully knows that.

By restricting use of cell phones, computers and other devices during certain hours of the day or night, you prevent the cyber-bully from being able to reach your child, and you prevent your child from responding to (and reacting to) whatever the cyber-bully is attempting to do at that time.

Limiting access to these devices is a good idea for many reasons, and, for the cyber-bully, it prevents them from reaching your child at all, which will make your child a much less rewarding target, and it may actually cause the tormenter to lose interest. There’s no guarantee…but it certainly can’t hurt!

4) Watch for suspicious behavior. Nobody knows your child the way you know your child. Not even your child knows your child the way you know your child! When something is wrong, you know it. You may not know what it is, but you know that it’s something. So act on that impulse! Find out what’s bothering your child. Don’t settle for an answer of “nothing.” What’s “nothing” to them today could still be the start of big trouble tomorrow.

You may learn that they are being cyber-bullied, even if they don’t realize that that’s what it is. Is their odd behavior due to some strange text messages they’ve been getting? Did somebody send them an inappropriate email? Or are they already aware that whatever’s happening is blossoming into something larger but they’d prefer not to talk about it in the hopes that it will just stop and go away?

It’s important to find out exactly what’s bothering your child. If it’s anything to do with text messages, emails, Facebook posts or anything similar, it may well be the start of full-blown cyber-bullying, and now is the time to stop it. Which leads us to our next point…

5) Contact the authorities. The moment you determine that your child is being cyber-bullied – as opposed to simply being teased or joked with by their friends – you should contact the police. If legitimate threats or actions are being made against your child, they need to know immediately so that they can take action. Even if the cyber-bullying is something too small or vague for them to investigate, the fact that you reported it means that the incident is documented, and if the cyber-bullying continues or increases, there will already be a history on record and investigations can progress that much more quickly.

Time is of the essence as well. Specialists in computer forensics might be able to trace emails, text messages or other methods of communication back to the sender, but the more time that elapses the less likely it is that they will be able to find reliable information. Remember, there is no benefit to waiting. If the police are unable to help, let them tell you that. The last thing you want to do is wait until it becomes something too serious to adequately handle. By that point it may be too late. There is no way to undo the damage that cyber-bullies can wreak in your child’s life; the best we can do is prevent it ahead of time!

Do you have any additional tips to prevent cyber-bullying? If so, please leave them in the comments below!

Earnest Parenting: helping parents protect their kids.

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