Four Frequently Asked Questions (and Answers) Every Parent Should Know
We answer four common questions about parenting, from homeschooling and time-outs to sensory disorder and cyber-bullying
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In September 2011, Jamey Rodemeyer, a 14-year-old boy from the Buffalo area, committed suicide after being bullied both at school and online. Although bullying has always been a problem in schools, cyber-bullying is a relatively new phenomenon, one that has taken on a life of its own as more kids between the ages of 12 and 15 use cell phones and online social networks like Facebook. In response to this epidemic, New York State Senator Jeff Klein introduced legislation shortly after Rodemeyer’s death that would expand the scope of second-degree manslaughter to include “bullycide,” online bullying that leads to death. It would also expand the crime of third-degree stalking to include cyber-bullying, defined as the use of digital and mobile technology by a minor to cause emotional distress to another minor. “New York State has had trouble prosecuting cyber-bullying under the current laws,” explains Westchester psychologist and cyber-bullying expert Dr. Richard DioGuardi. “The laws aren’t keeping pace with technology. Bullying is no longer confined to the schoolyard — it’s mobile.”
A 2011 Consumer Reports survey revealed that one million children were harassed, threatened, or the subject of salacious rumors on Facebook in the previous year. Dr. DioGuardi estimates that more than a quarter of his adolescent patients have been the victims of cyber-bullying. Cyber-bullying can include cruel things said directly to the victim via text message, email, or Instant Message (IM); or relational abuse, in which a child is excluded by online friends or is the subject of defamatory rumors and remarks on public forums. “Kids don’t get a reprieve,” says Dr. DioGuardi. “You used to be able to go home and get a break from bullying, but now kids can’t because it’s on their computers, on their cell phones. It’s very sad.”
Schools are one part of what Dr. DioGuardi calls a “three-tiered approach” to combating cyber-bullying, the other two being parents and the children themselves. Today, educators are trained to detect early warning signs of bullying. In July, the Dignity for All Students Act (DASA) will go into effect. This state legislation protects against all forms of harassment, prohibiting activities and behavior that create a hostile environment at school or school-sponsored events. Here in the Valley, several school districts have been sued for failure to respond in a timely and appropriate fashion to incidences of cyber-bullying. In 2009, a Pine Plains family was awarded $1.25 million in damages after the school district failed to address the repeated physical assaults, death threats, and online harassment endured by their son.
It is not realistic to expect that an adolescent will avoid using a computer altogether, so parents must teach safe technology use and remain vigilant about their child’s online activities. Kids should be taught to block or ignore unwelcome communication; clean up IM buddy lists to reduce the number of people who have access to them; and resist engaging bullies when baited. If a child has already been cyber-bullied, it is important that messages not be deleted, as they can be used as evidence. If the harassment escalates, enlist the help of the school psychologist or police liaison. If this is ineffective, Dr. DioGuardi recommends contacting the police directly.
Red flags that might indicate a child is being bullied include sudden trouble sleeping or nightmares; falling behind in schoolwork; appearing angry, frustrated, or upset after looking at their cell phone; abrupt avoidance of computers; or sudden social withdrawal from friends. Because bullying of any kind can be so damaging to a kid’s self-esteem, it can be helpful to get them into therapy with a professional who specializes in bullying. In addition, it’s important for parents to be aware of signs that their child might be a cyber-bully: Investigate further if he or she quickly switches screens or closes program when you walk by, avoids discussions about what they are doing on the computer; and uses multiple online accounts or an account that is not their own.
“Cyber-bullying happens during such a formative time,” says Dr. DioGuardi. “Kids will internalize bad ideas about how friendships and relationships work that can stay with them for quite awhile. It’s not a quick process, but I’ve seen kids make comebacks.”
(Continue for question #3)