Helping you balance your online life

Jul 31st


Cyberbullying - Cliques Who Click

Remember the good old days when the worst the "in" crowd could do was whisper in the hall about who did what with whom? While the old idiom about sticks and stones is mostly untrue -- words can definitely hurt -- at least back then, when there was no such thing as tweeting, the juicy gossip would typically be forgotten.
These days, our kids are faced with cyberbullying situations that not only can damage their reputation among their peers while in school, but also have a serious impact on the rest of their lives.

Thanks to mobile texting, blogs and social networking, the spread of information is so fast, easy and free that it makes the hallway gossip of yesteryear look downright archaic. Kids don't have to wait for a story to pass from one person to another (to another) anymore. They can tell one story to a thousand people with one single click. And, instead of just whispering about who did what with whom, kids can now post photos or videos of the act -- easily obtained with cell phone cameras and possibly manipulated with tools like PhotoShop.

Because the internet moves so fast, the period of time where a child might question or regret their actions is minimized. And the anonymity of the internet reduces accountability, so kids can easily post cruel and even untrue comments with almost no personal responsibility attached. Liability used to be a strong enough factor to keep a teenager's impulses in check. Its absence is making the maturation process much more difficult.

Another pitfall: You can't get away from it. With mobile devices becoming so accessible, kids can easily spend every waking moment connected to the web in some form. As The Curse of the Good Girl author Rachel Simmons puts it, "Cyberbullying has intensified the experience of getting bullied by literally shattering the walls between school and home. There is no escape."

Just like Vegas, what's posted on the internet stays on the internet. You may have heard stories over the last few years about politicians, public representatives and even a Miss America candidate who were haunted by incriminating online photos. These were adults who posted compromising pictures that jeopardized or ruined their careers, so you can imagine the kinds of things a teen could be posting -- and the long-term damage it could do.

Think about it: Everything you've done to help set up your kids for a secure future, including college or a career, could be undone with one web search. According to a 2010 Microsoft study, 79% of recruiters and hiring managers in the U.S. have reviewed online information posted to social networking sites and blogs to screen job candidates. There are some sites that allow you a bit of control, like Facebook, where you can delete comments or untag a photo of yourself. But if someone posts something about you on their personal blog, for example, it could stay up there forever.

Rosalind Wiseman, author of the bestseller Queen Bees and Wannabes, which inspired the hit movie "Mean Girls," has spent years dissecting the reasons why cliques cyberbully, intimidate and punish their peers. She recently updated her book to include the impact the digital age has had on this phenomenon. On her site, she provides advice, from her own research, conferences, seminars and round-tables on the topic.

Wiseman recommends a number of tips to help curb unethical use of the Internet by kids.

Here are three key takeaways:

- Monitor your kids online. How to respect your kids' privacy while keeping an eye on them has always been an issue, and the age of technology makes it more difficult. Wiseman says you should tell your kids you will be checking in on their online life and reviewing things like the phone bill. "Giving kids a little bit of paranoia is a good thing," she says. "Otherwise they think there are no brakes on this."

- Communicate with your kids and set clear limits. Talk to your child about ethics and responsibility. Most kids know what they are doing when they post something about themselves or someone else, but they might not fully understand the ramifications or long-term impact. Technology is a privilege that can be taken away, but in today's world, grounding your kid from the home computer won't cut him or her off. Kids can access what they need from their phones, gaming systems, friends' houses and at school, so simply banning the computer or forbidding Facebook may not make a difference. Set boundaries ahead of time about what will happen.

- Be a good role model. And that's not just limited to when you are being funny and posting your husband's old yearbook photos on Facebook. Setting a good example even extends to how you speak of your peers and family members. While sometimes your sister-in-law can be a pain, venting about it to or in front of your kids teaches them it's okay to talk badly about others, which in this day and age quickly translates to posting badly about others.

Orginally published Aug. 25, 2010. Updated and republished July 31, 2012.