Cyberbullying: A National Epidemic

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Bullying has been regarded by some as a rite of passage, a normal part of growing up. But recent high-profile instances of bullycide - young people committing suicide following mistreatment by peers - have revealed the harmful and lasting effects harassment can have. And whereas bullying once may have been primarily a problem in the classroom, today mistreatment that starts at school can follow students home.

Young people who are the victims of cyberbullying often endure constant taunts, threats and humiliation online at the hands of peers using computers and mobile devices. This form of bullying can be especially devastating as photos, videos, texts and social media posts are often permanent, enduring reminders of abuse. Put-downs, embarrassing photos and other digital ephemera can be easily shared with a large group, an entire school, even the general public. And mistreatment can be difficult to detect unless a student comes forward.

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Too often cyberbullying behaviors go unchecked until it is too late. Phoebe Prince, a 15-year-old girl attending a high school in South Hadley, Massachusetts, hanged herself in January of 2010 after enduring three months of defamatory text messages and Facebook posts. Ryan Halligan, a middle school student, killed himself in 2003 after experiencing years of torment - first in school and then online. Tyler Clementi's death is the latest reminder that cyberbullying must be addressed.

Technology to Prevent Cyberbullying?

The evolution of smart phones and other mobile technologies have made gadgets ubiquitous in all of our lives. Young people thrive in the digital world, and incidents of cyberbullying are on the rise. One in five young people ages 10-18 report having participated in or been a victim of cyberbullying, though that figure is thought to be a low estimate due to underreporting.

School personnel, parents and law enforcement officials are searching for methods to prevent mistreatment from occurring - and ways to stop abuse that is detected. It is widely acknowledged that depriving young people of mobile devices and Internet access is unrealistic. Many believe we must look to technology for solutions that can help limit cyberbullying.

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A variety of websites addressing cyberbullying (such as Stop Cyberbulling and the Cyberbullying Research Center) make people aware of the harmful effects of online harassment and what can be done to prevent it. Experts suggest becoming familiar with recommendations offered at these sites and discussing them with youth.

And there are other lines of defense. Social networking sites like Facebook and MySpace typically provide links encouraging users to report abuse. And privacy and blocking controls can allow young people to prevent the messages of cyberbullies from appearing. Some sites also offer features that allow parents to watch their children's online activity in order to provide protection from potential abuse.

In fact, with the proliferation of personal information and photos online, a whole new industry of self-protection companies has emerged. Sites like ReputationDefender and SafeSocial can allow users to identify what others may be posting about them online. Programs are designed to also give parents the capability to monitor online postings referencing their children. These services can be among the more effective ways to detect online harassment, although they typically require a subscription.

Online Education: Another Alternative

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Cyberbullying can have such destructive effects on students that some feel the need to drop out of school. Peer harassment can be difficult to stop. And even in cases that it does cease, embarrassment about abuse that has already occurred may make returning to school untenable for students.

For young people who feel they cannot return to school, online classes are available. Though courses are taken in the same digital world where abuse has occurred, students often find that separation from the physical school building makes all the difference. Middle and high school students can take classes with private online schools like Allied National High School or pursue options through local school districts. The GLBTQ Online High School, currently raising funds for startup costs, will soon be an option for students harassed for being gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender or questioning. And college-level courses, of course, are available through hundreds of higher ed institutions throughout the country.

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