A private junior high and high school for girls with behavioral problems, emotional problems or learning problems, ages 13-17, in Arizona.
You're a trusting parent, right? And like most trusting parents, you know your daughter probably surfs the internet every once in a while and enjoys instant messaging with friends, but it's just innocent entertainment and it doesn't hurt anyone. In fact, it's a great way for her to stay in touch with friends, so there's really no need to be concerned - or to pay too much attention to the messages she receives - is there?
Actually, there is. Just as instances of girl-on-girl violence are rising in schools, so are instances of cyber- or "net bullying". And where physical violence does physical harm, cyber-bullying wreaks a havoc that causes passing upset at its mildest and lasting emotional and psychological damage at its most severe. It also disrupts your daughter's sense of safety and security at home and at school, and can destroy her self-esteem in the process.
So just what is cyber-bullying and why should you be so concerned?
Usually classmates and members of a child's peer group, cyber-bullies use instant messaging, emails, web sites, internet diaries and web logs (known as "blogs") and chat rooms to slander their targets by spreading vicious rumors and statements or comments denigrating their victim's character. More alarming, this approach is often accompanied with more direct "attacks" in the form of threatening emails and instant messages sent directly to the target - often suggesting that the target is being watched or will be physically harmed in some way.
According to internet safety sites like Wiredkids.org and Wiredsafety.org, cyber-bullying happens most frequently between girls and the instigators tend to be on the receiving end of some type of physical or personal bullying themselves - the internet, then, becomes a "safe" and relatively anonymous way for the girl to then find a target of her own. Worse still, most girls refuse to speak up about this kind of bullying for fear of repercussions at school or within her social peer group, making cyber-bullying hard to spot and even harder to stop.
What's more, the relentless and often highly invasive nature of cyber-bullying can lead to highly charged and emotionally intense experiences for the recipient - so much that girls affected by cyber-bullying may stop using the computer (thereby neglecting school work and academics), may begin suffering from high levels of anxiety, severely damaged self-esteem and, in severe cases, may even refuse to go to school.
That being said, taking a pro-active approach to your daughter's social involvements AND to her "cyber life" can make a significant difference in her ability to avoid this type of harassment or in how successfully she addresses such a situation in the event it does arise.
Watch for Signs
As with most significant issues, kids may respond to cyber-bullying in two ways: they'll either tell you, or they won't. Either way, it's wise to keep an eye on your daughter while she's using the computer or sending and receiving emails and instant messages. Obviously, you need to respect her privacy - an important part of establishing a trusting and open bond with your daughter is giving her some personal space - but if you notice that she changes the screen suddenly, seems startled or switches the computer off as soon as you walk in, it's possible she may be viewing messages and material she doesn't want you to see.
Establish Boundaries Early
Talk with your daughter about acceptable internet and instant message use and set clear boundaries and guidelines for the sites and chat rooms she can and cannot visit. While this won't necessarily protect her from invasive cyber-bullying, it will help her recognize what is and is not appropriate - it may also prevent her from wandering into chat rooms and sites where she may be vulnerable to adult cyber-predators.
Once again, communication is one of the most essential tools for protecting your daughter. Make it clear that your daughter can and should feel comfortable talking to you about concerning emails or potentially threatening cyber-messages and let her know that doing so will only increase - not jeopardize - her safety at home and at school.
Have a Plan
Finally, work with your daughter to create a cyber-bullying response plan. Talking to her now about how to respond if she did become the target of such behavior will give her the confidence to handle potentially devastating situations swiftly and effectively - before they get out of hand. Make sure your plan highlights the fact that your daughter should NOT respond to threatening or slanderous messages, blogs or web postings and that she should report the messages to you and, if she's comfortable, to a trusted teacher or member of school staff.
Stamping out cyber-bullying is impossible. With ever-expanding technology and an often rotating cycle of bullies and targets within the complex web of adolescent relationships, pinning down one or two instigators won't necessarily solve the problem. But teaming with your school and other parents to openly and directly address the issue can - and will - help. Creating opportunities to teach all students how to recognize and handle cyber-bullying, as well as the potentially lasting dangers of such behavior, can have a profound impact on instances of bullying within your community as a whole.