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It's Not Just About Lunch Money Anymore

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When I was in school bullies were the mean kids on the blacktop. The ones waiting after school to beat up on another kid that was usually no match for their size and strength. But there was at least a "safe zone" from school bullies: Home. Today, running home and shutting out the bullying happening at school isn't an option because bullies are popping up on the internet faster than ever.

Last year my daughter experienced a bit of cyber bullying when a kid posted a bulletin online that asked all the kids in her school that viewed it to make her life "hell" and call her names when she was at school. Even when I moved her to a new school, he posted another bulletin for the kids at her new school to see asking them to do the same thing to her. Soon, we discovered her so-called friends got in on it with him and were plotting to completely embarrass her during her first week at the new school. We cut and pasted the "online conversation" we discovered between the two girls plotting against her and took it to the school principal.

The plan was aborted and the girls apologized profusely. I think they all learned and valuable lesson but it was devastating for us both. But when I asked her yesterday what she would consider cyber bullying, first she corrected me and said "no one my age says cyber, mom" and than stated she didn't know. I reminded her of last years events and told her that would be a perfect example of "Internet" bullying.

Thousands of students every year embark on yet another scholastic roller coaster. There are many, however, who look upon the beginning of school with trepidation. They are the new kids, the shy kids, the kids who would rather be anyplace else but in school. Why? The reasons take on a myriad of variations, many are the kids who, as a result of embarrassment, shame, or fear, have either been, or fear that they will be harmed by their peers, or worse yet, opt to be by themselves because they believe they are alone and "the problem" is to big for them or anyone to handle. I'm talking about traditional school bullying. This crime happens under the roofs in what appears to be happy families. There's a ground swell of it within schools across this country. It's called "Cyber Bullying", or as my daughter called it, Internet Bullying.

Cyber bullying takes what used to be schoolyard insults, pushing, and shoving to a whole new, expansive, and very dangerous level. The cyber bully uses email, chat rooms, instant messaging, cell phones and text messaging to insult, demean, threaten, humiliate, harass, deceive, impersonate, and in many cases, posts lewd or embarrassing photographs online of their peer -- while hiding behind a veil of anonymity that the Internet provides. On the middle school level, typical insults include comments like "U R ugly, U R fat, U R a liar, Nobody likes you, or make so and so's life hell at school tomorrow", however when kids reach 13, the comments are often sexual in nature, include profanity and detail true or untrue reports of promiscuity.

Unlike the schoolyard bully, these attacks aren't by some scary kid wanting to push his weight around. They can be by anyone or no one that the child knows. Tragically, it's sometimes by someone that the child thought was a friend. And unlike the schoolyard bully, a cyber bully can be comprised of one or many kids and by the time the posting hits the Net, literally thousands, if not millions of people have seen it, if it's been shared around the world. And unlike the schoolyard bully, the cyber bully hits their victim in the sanctity of their own home or bedroom - where they feel that they can't escape.

Greg Writer, CEO of CEN, Children's Educational Network, and a father of five, notes: "Often, kids are afraid to tell their parents for fear that their computer will be taken away or that their parents will make the situation worse. What they don't realize is that unless the bullying stops immediately, it can escalate and leave permanent psychological scars. That's one of the reasons CEN provides FREE Internet safety and education with our Parental Control browsers. Kids need to know how to navigate safely within this environment, so they'll know how to prevent and protect themselves from these situations. Additionally, we make it very clear to kids who might want to engage in this type of activity, that there are severe personal consequences to their behavior. For example, we want them to consider "before" they make poor choices that whatever is posted on the Net is there forever, and as much as they may regret later that they did this to someone, the damage is done and irreversible."

Experts in the field state that victims of these crimes suffer psychological trauma requiring professional help, many, like my daughter, have had to move to other schools, their mental state has resulted in their grades dropping; many are afraid to form close relationships with new people; and in more severe cases, suicide or murder has resulted. These are not just childhood pranks. These are serious crimes, and several states are enacting laws, such as Florida, making these emails felonies. In Pennsylvania, cyber bullying, harassment and stalking carry stiff jail sentences and fines for those convicted.

Cyber bullies need to realize that they may be able to hide from their victims behind screen names, but they cannot hide from law enforcement. Mark Franek, Dean of Students at the William Penn Charter School in Philadelphia, explained the process very well: "Each time the Internet is accessed, an IP (Internet Protocol) address is established. The 12 numerals punctuated by the 3 periods is the electronic fingerprint that can be accessed by the authorities to trace all electronic communications between computers and/or mobile phones. No computer or mobile phone -- or its user -- is really anonymous in cyberspace."

The Internet and cell phones have become, in large part, the fabric of the social lives of tweens and teens. As such, they are prime targets for this kind of attack. The first thing kids need to understand about Instant Messaging, and blogs (web logs) or live journals, is that the more personal information you give someone (sports they participate in, what school they go to or city they live in, wearing school mascot clothing in pictures, etc.) the more it can be used against you by not only those whom you wanted to read it, but by others whom you didn't. Whenever you type something online and press "send", you have just given up your privacy. Additionally, people online will pose to be people they aren't for purposes of deception and in many cases, to commit crimes -- often stealing someone's identity in the process.

Parents, aunts, uncles, grandparents, teachers...talk to kids about cyber bullying. Give them these helpful tips: Know that there are ALWAYS people available to help you that will make cyber bullies stop. These people are law enforcement; your school teacher, school counselor, principal; your parents or a nurturing, responsible adult; Cyber crime reporting sites such as: www.cybertipline.org, www.wiredsafety.net, and safety@worldkids.net.

Don't give out any personal information such as your name, your school's name or the name of any of the sports teams in which you play, your home telephone or cellular phone number, your address -- including the city where your other parent lives if they are divorced, your parent's office address, or the address of your school. Don't ever use your real name as your user or screen name. If you find that you are a victim of cyber bullying: Do not respond to the harassers directly because that is exactly what they want. Don't give them the pleasure of knowing that you're upset by it -- Stay cool. Save and print out all messages -- Do not erase any emails. Report this crime to the police. If possible, report it as it is happening and remember, you are in control of your online experience. It is unacceptable for you to be verbally abused or threatened in person or online.

It's an unsettling thought for any parent to think that their child may be a victim of a Cyber Bully, or be one. As difficult as it may be to consider, parents and teachers alike need to talk about this subject at home and in the classroom. We need to raise awareness of this issue and be pro-active. At present, lawmakers are drafting laws to prevent and prosecute the perpetrators of these crimes. Education, vigilance, and strict laws are key in disarming bullies.

Thank you to Children's Educational Network. Please visit Club TUKI to learn more about the safe, entertaining and educational features that they offer consumers.

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