Whom do parents fear more -- "Stranger Danger" or a Facebook friend? According to a national survey commissioned by Care.com, bullying and cyberbullying have eclipsed kidnapping as parents' greatest fear. Nearly one in three parents of children ages 12-17 agree that bullying is a more serious concern than other dangers, including domestic terrorism, car accidents and suicide.
It's no wonder parents are worried, when national studies have found that an astonishing fifty percent of all students have either been victims of bullying or cyberbullying or were the bullies themselves. The tragic cases of Michael Brewer, 15, who was set on fire by fellow students, and Phoebe Prince, 16, who committed suicide after vicious taunting, have sounded the national alarm to what was once considered not a crime, but a childhood "rite of passage."
When technology takes traditional bullying into cyberspace, the damage can be catastrophic. With the touch of a button, kids can harass, violate privacy and ruin the reputation of classmates in front of virtually the entire world. Has a wireless world and the anonymity of the Internet allowed for once non-confrontational kids to become more aggressive? Has technology enabled all children to become meaner?
Parents seem to think so. The Care.com survey found that almost two out of three parents (62 percent) believe that technology including cell phones, social networking sites and video games has made kids fiercer.
But Dr. Sameer Hinduja, the co-director of the Cyberbullying Research Center and the co-author of "Bullying Beyond the School Yard," doesn't blame modern gadgetry for nastier behavior among children.
"I don't think it's the technology that's making our children meaner, it's the cultural shifts in our society," Dr. Hinduja says. "We're more tolerant of verbal and physical violence. Being a jerk is more acceptable than in previous decades."
Dr. Hinduja also recognizes an inherent irony in the age of helicopter parenting. While parents are tethered to their children, hovering over every aspect of their lives, they have been strangely absent when it comes to their kids' wireless activity.
"Parents have been heavily involved in off line life with their children," says Dr.Hinduja. "But parents need to be equally involved in their online life. In many ways the kids' online life is a more important part of their lives these days."
But according to the Care.com study, the horrific headlines of children being bullied to death has not only heightened parents' anxiety, but has compelled them to take action. The survey found that 69 percent of parents are now monitoring their children's cell-phone text messages, their social-network pages including Facebook, and talking to their children about bullying.
Parents are also insisting that the schools take the issue seriously. More than one in three parents surveyed report encouraging their schools to create anti-bullying programs. And one out of five parents gave their children's school a poor or failing grade for how they are currently addressing bullying.
Experts say that it takes a village to combat bullying behavior and that everyone including bus drivers and school janitors need to be taught what to look for and how to appropriately respond.
"We need to educate the community and train educational administrators and teachers about how to observe and intervene," says Dr. Robi Ludwig, a psychotherapist based in New York City who is working with Success for Kids, a school-based program that teaches empathy and social skills. "Bullying needs to be a community issue and we must have a zero tolerance policy. We have to create a standard in the community that will have a domino effect where kids know that if they bully, there will be consequences."
Bullying is no longer being treated as normal child's play. States are beginning to criminalize the behavior. According to a New York Times article, forty-four states have anti-bullying statutes but fewer than half offer guidance about whether schools may intervene in bullying involving "electronic communication," which usually occurs outside of school and on the weekends.
The state laws regarding bullying are also inconsistent. Some make the schools responsible through their school conduct codes that must explicitly prohibit cyberbullying, while others don't address it at all. And some school districts are directed by the state to have cyberbullying prevention programs. But when it comes to discipline or punishment, so far there are no well-defined rules or even recommendations.
Parents, school administrators and even the courts are still trying to figure out how to both prevent and punish what seems to be a growing epidemic of cyberbullying.
And hence, a conundrum. Schools may not understand how to respond or how to act, but that's exactly where experts say the education needs to begin.