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May 25, 2005

Schoolyard Bullies Going Online

Courtesy of InformationWeek

Some educators estimate that 160,000 kids miss school each day in the United States because they're afraid of being bullied or harassed by other kids. To make matters worse, now some bullies are venturing outside the school yard, finding a new a place to harass their young victims: cyberspace.

In Washington, D.C., on Tuesday, several legislators, law-enforcement officials, educators, and members of WiredKids Inc., a nonprofit organization focused on improving online safety for children, discussed possible ways to help kids and parents handle Internet bullying.

Acts of so-called cyberbullying include kids harassing other youngsters by using cell phones to send thousands of text messages to the victims, driving up the victims' cell phone bill; kids putting up Web sites for peers to vote for "the ugliest kid"; sending threatening E-mails or instant messages; or posting on Web sites phony photos of other kids in embarrassing or pornographic poses, says Parry Aftab, WiredKids executive director and founder.

Ironically, in some cases, the Internet is also empowering former victims of physical bullying to transform themselves into new cyberbullies. Sometimes the physically smaller "geeky" kid, who's better with technology, gets back at his or her nemesis by using the Web as a weapon, Aftab says. "It's revenge of the nerds," she says.

Some filtering and monitoring software can help parents track what's going on with their kids online if they suspect their children are victims or are bullying others, she says. Kids who are being harassed online should "stop, block, and tell," Aftab says. That means a kid who's on the receiving end of cyberbullying should step away from the computer or cell phone and "cool down" for a few minutes before responding. "Cyberbullies are looking for attention," she says. Kids then need to tell a parent or other trusted adult about what's happening, she says.

Parents sometimes tell their children to "fight back" when a school-yard bully physically or verbally torments them. However, that advice doesn't work well with cyberbullying, she says. That's because bullying situations via the Web can quickly escalate and involve many more kids who have Internet access, she says.

Kids who worry about being beat up or harassed at school are more likely to have academic or attendance issues, says Bill Modzeleski, director of the Office of Safe and Drug-Free Schools program of the U.S. Department of Education. Schools need to have zero tolerance policies about bullying, including cyberbullying, he says.

However, when it comes to cyberbullying, many of those incidents occur using technology, such as home PCs, that are located off school property, so enforcement by schools is difficult.

An Anti-Bullying Act of 2005 (H.R. 284) was recently introduced into the House of Representatives by Rep. John Shimkus, R-Ill. The proposal requires states, districts, and schools to develop policies and programs to prevent and respond to instances of bullying and harassment, and allows schools to apply for federal grants to create programs to educate students and school professionals about bullying. Shimkus says the act, if passed, also would permit schools to develop policies for cyberbullying involving school PCs and technology.

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