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Cyber-bullying combines meaness and technology.

By Katherine Tippins
University of Georgia

Many parents may remember being a victim of physical and emotional suffering at the hands of a childhood bully. Others may regret being a bully when they were young.

Youths are still at risk for verbal and physical bullying, but today’s technology dramatically increases a bully’s potential impact. Internet bullying, or cyber-bullying, gives school-yard bullies a World Wide Web of options.

Anonymous bullies

"The significant difference between cyber-bullying and conventional bullying is the ability to hide one’s identity," said Sharon Gibson, a University of Georgia Cooperative Extension child development expert.

Gibson coordinates UGA’s Children, Youth and Families at Risk Project in the College of Family and Consumer Sciences. She warns the technology used to make children safer and better equipped for educational advancement can be used against them.

“The difference is how far the verbal assault can spread and how fast it can spread. Technology propels bullying beyond the school yard or neighborhood to the world through the Web,” Gibson said.

Messages, blogs and polls

There are many different ways to be cyber-bullied. One of the most common is hurtful or threatening instant messages.

Other forms include creating a Web site or blog with embarrassing information or unflattering pictures of the victim. A blog is a Web site where entries are made in journal style and are displayed in reverse chronological order. Pictures taken with a cell phone or digital camera can also be e-mailed, printed and posted to Web sites.

In the old days, kids would pass notes in class, collecting votes on various categories of students then post them on the bathroom wall. Today, Internet polling is a serious cyber-bullying tool.

"(Internet polling) has a life of its own,” Gibson said. “It can go out to hundreds of people.”

When cyber bullies use internet polling, they broadcast polls to get voters to cast their opinions on who belongs at the top of such condescending categories as dumbest and fattest, she said. The results are either shared with all the voters through email, or posted to Web sites.

In spite of the many misuses of technology, Gibson doesn’t condemn using the Internet.

"The Internet doesn’t necessarily lead to negative behavior,” she said. “But cyber-bullying can be more insidious because the victim can’t easily escape from the bully.”

Trained to help

UGA Extension agents are getting special training to help teachers and parents deal with cyber bullying. UGA Extension specialist Todd Hurt recently led such a training session.

"We soon discovered most of the literature was written as a 'do's and don'ts' list or a 'what to watch for' list for parents,” Hurt said. “We needed a more active way to warn teens of the perils of the Web rather than to give them more rules to follow.”

To keep children safe on the Web, parents should use awareness as a form of protection, he said.

Many kids use social networking sites such as MySpace. Parents should know who their child's cyber friends are, how much personal information their child is posting and who can view their profile.

Be an aware parent

"Just as you know where your child is physically, so should you be aware of the places that your child is visiting on-line," Gibson said.

Also, because cyber-bullying can happen at home or at school, parents should know school rules.

"Parents should ask the school what their policy is,” Gibson said. “If [a policy] isn’t in place, they should work to develop a school policy.”

For more tips on preventing and dealing with cyber-bullying, parents can visit the Web site www.cyberbullying.info.

(Katherine Tippins is a student writer with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.)

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