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Tackling The 24/7 Bully

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Those of us who are parents or care-givers will do just about anything to ensure the good health and well-being of our children.  A constant worry for most parents is the thought of how to best prepare kids for tough situations and adversities, as the world we grew up is different from the one they now face. While new technologies have brought with them endless opportunities to learn and engage, it has also brought with it new challenges and pressures, one such being the impact of cyberbullying. As parents we are not aware of it and if we do sometimes, we may not know how to address it.

As more and more kids access Internet to communicate with their friends and for research-based projects, we also need to remember that if left unmonitored, there can be a dark and dangerous side to the Internet. Whilst much has been said about social networking, I believe that social networking sites are not "the problem". Rather, it's the way they are used that can be an issue.

It is important to understand that the issue of cyberbullying can vary from one age group to the other. While younger children online may visit wrong websites exposing themselves to adult and violent material that is inappropriate for their age, older children with access to mobile phones & emails may face threats  such as sexting, privacy and reputations issues, online scams etc .

Last year, a 14-year-old student Nishant  was bullied online by his seniors as he was better at the game of basketball which led him to withdraw from his favorite sport.  He finally confided in his father, who sought the help of a counselor.

It, therefore, becomes critical for parents to identify the signs and source of the damaging content at an early stage to be able to provide the right guidance to help their children avoid distressing experiences. Imparting online etiquettes and teaching children ways to handle common online problems can help them better prepare for online experiences. 

The Schoolyard Is Now 24/7
While we might have grown up seeing bullies at recess or lunch in the schoolyard, it's safe to assume that most of us didn't grow up using mobile phones at school, or having our lives documented through blogs or social networking sites from an early age. For many of us, our 'digital footprint' didn't even begin until we may have been in the work environment for a number of years.

However today, social networking and mobile phones can be accessed round the clock, which means that bullying can be more invasive than ever before. Additionally, bullies can remain anonymous online if they choose, masking their actions and making it harder for targets or supervisory elders to spot them.
According to Norton Online Family Report 2011, 79 per cent of kids in India have had a negative experience online, and about 84 per cent kids on social networks found themselves in unpleasant situations online. The fact that 32 per cent of parents confirmed that their child has experience cyberbullying (Ipsos poll) indicate the prevalence of this issue. 

While we may not be able to easily relate to the growing pains of our 'digital native' children who wouldn't know life without a mobile or Internet, we need to understand and appreciate some of the unique issues they face by talking about it with them.

Spotting The Signs
The Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University provides a good summary of the types of children who may be targeted by bullying. This  includes, children changing schools, either due to a move or transition from primary to secondary schools, children of greater or lower family income levels as compared to the average and children whose appearance may deviate from the “norm” (overweight, underweight, wearing glasses, disabled, etc.).

According to the research, children who bully others also tend to have similar characteristics; they often have high levels of energy, an ability to manipulate others, take delight in getting their own way and have difficulty with expressing empathy or dealing with emotions and conflict. If a child starts to withdraw from school or their social life online, is moody or easily distressed, has damage to his personal possessions, has difficulty sleeping or unexplained cuts, bruises or marks on their skin – then they might be facing bullying at school or online.

If you suspect your child of being a bully, or being bullied, the first step to addressing the issue is to talk about it with her or him, and attempt to get them to open up and have an honest chat about it, without fear of repercussions or restrictions from devices or the internet.

Minimising The Risk
It is important that parents pay attention to clues and signs to predict whether their children could be a target. Parents need to talk with their kids, because children are less likely to bring it up on their own. There are things parents can do to minimise the risks and ensure kids know what to do if they are picked on by a bully.
  • Set ground rules together on internet usage – sit down and develop some ground rules for internet usage together with your kids so that they are included. The recent story  of the mother in the US who gave her son an iPhone with an 18-point contract including “Mother will always know the password” is an interesting example of setting the rules and the boundaries.
  • Monitor your children’s internet usage – depending on their age, you may wish to limit the times that children have access to the internet or their mobile phones. At the very least, you should also be aware of what sites they visit and for what purpose. Software such as Norton Family and Norton 360 Multi-Device are tools that parents can rely on for staying abreast of their children’s online activities and at the same time securing their computers and mobile devices.
  • Don’t wait until it’s too late to have the talk – if you wait until your child is in high school, chances are that they have already been exposed to bullying behavior online. If you’re talking to your child about the ‘birds and the bees’ then consider having other conversations with them about their online behavior, and bullying.
  • Keep talking about it with your children - Sadly, bullying of any nature can have devastating effects on our children, particularly if it is ongoing and relentless. Tragic stories like those of a bright and confident teenager, Ayesha  who committed suicide after she was constantly harassed by a male friend who she befriended on a social networking website, are shocking examples, where parents were not aware that their daughter was reeling under tremendous pressure and trauma.

Take the opportunity to spend time with your children, have open conversations with them regularly and encourage them to share their daily experiences. As parents our responsibilities towards our children carry on well beyond their real (flesh and blood) life to their virtual lives where the boundaries are blur and everyone is “faceless”.

(Ritesh Chopra,  Country Sales Manager, India & SAARC, Norton by Symantec)