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A group of Internet "angels" is out to protect children
The ripple effect of this online bullying was disastrous. Friends dropped Mary Ellen to avoid becoming targets themselves. Her grades fell, and she developed an ulcer. When she and her family complained to school officials, Mary Ellen says, "they didn't take it seriously."
Unfortunately, people often have a "kids will be kids" attitude about online tormenting, says Parry Aftab, who is the executive director of WiredSafety.org. They don't realize how intrusive cyberbullying can be. The digital version of playground taunting can target a child anytime and anywhere--at home, in school, or at play. Anytime she logs on to do an assignment or flips open a cell phone to call Mom, she may be victimized. But Teenangels, a group of young volunteers concerned about cyberbullying, is working to change that.
Started by Aftab in 1999, Teenangels is small--only 450 members--but its 13- to 18-year-old members have advised law-enforcement groups and taught classes on Websurfing safety across the country. Here's what Teenangels says you can do to protect your child.
Set ground rules Explain to your child that sometimes kids say nasty things online that they wouldn't express face-to-face. Emphasize that spreading rumors is no more acceptable in cyberspace than it is anywhere else. Make it clear that you want him to show you any mean messages he receives.
Teach privacy It's risky to share passwords, even with a best friend. Warn your child not to store her password on someone else's computer, which can easily happen when she goes online while visiting a friend.
Stay engaged Keep the computer in the family room or kitchen. If you're nearby, a child who receives a bullying e-mail is likely to wave you over to see it. From time to time, check in and ask what he's doing.
Keep tabs Google your child's name, address, cell phone number, and screen names regularly to see if anything negative pops up. Most Internet service providers have parental controls, so use them. (Go to www.prevention.com/links to learn how.) Does your child have a profile on a networking site, such as MySpace, where kids write about themselves? Tell her you'd like to read what's been posted--tomorrow. Giving 1 day's notice to remove anything objectionable makes it a learning experience instead of a parental gotcha, says Aftab.
Mary Ellen Handy's nightmare lasted for a while--but eventually her soccer teammates told the bullies to lay off. And that's another lesson parents can pass on: Flip the switch, learn a sport, join a club. Don't let computers take over your life.
How to fight back
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