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Bullying has spread from the playground to the Internet.
Worse, Gretchen posted unflattering, doctored photographs of Mary Ellen online. And she fired off electronic messages that made it seem as if Mary Ellen were gossiping about her classmates. Mary Ellen showed the messages to her mother, who couldn't believe her eyes: "I watched as girls instant-messaged her, 'Oh, what you wore the other day was so stupid.' It was horrible." The harassment got so bad that Mary Ellen had to get prescription medication for stress-related stomachaches.
As a parent, you probably worry about your kids stumbling across sexually explicit material on the Internet or meeting the wrong person in a chat room. Now there's another, perhaps less obvious threat to be concerned about: online bullying, or cyberbullying, as it's often called. Up to 80 percent of kids between the ages of 10 and 14 have been involved directly or indirectly, according to Parry Aftab, executive director of WiredSafety.org, an online safety group. "It could be your kid's head posted on the body of a porn queen," she warns.
What is Cyberbullying?
Last year, a classmate tormented Sarah Konior, 15, from Bay Shore, New York, over instant-messenger. "She'd call me 'ugly' and say mean things," says Sarah. "She told me my bangs were 'so fifth grade.' I'd think about what she said all the time. It brought my self-esteem down a lot." Sarah finally told her mother, who was shocked by the virulence of the messages. "The things this girl said were perverted and graphic," says Sarah's mother, Christine, a stay-at-home mom. Eventually, the harassment stopped on its own, but Christine now limits the time her daughter can spend online.
Girls often use different techniques than boys do. "When girls are angry, they don't confront each other face-to-face," explains Rosalind Wiseman, author of Queen Bee Moms & Kingpin Dads and cofounder of a nonprofit group that includes a cyberbullying-prevention program. "Cyberbullying unfortunately fits in well with the way girls communicate their anger."
What should I do?
What will the school do?
Mary Ellen's mom approached the dean of students at her daughter's school. The dean wanted to help, but when Gretchen was confronted, she denied everything. Later, she mocked Mary Ellen for having gone to her "mommy." It wasn't until some older classmates on Mary Ellen's soccer team told Gretchen to back off that the harassment stopped--which suggests that kids aren't just the source of the problem but a key part of the solution. Now a high school junior, Mary Ellen advises others on responsible Internet use as an FBI-trained WiredSafety.org volunteer. "It feels good to help other people," she says, "and to let them know that someone has been through what they're going through."
Teaching your kid net etiquette
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