When I was in grade school, there was a kid in my class who was at times my best friend and at other times my worst enemy. Our spats usually started out as joking with each other until one of us said something that hit a nerve. If I made a comment that he found offensive he would not let it go. He would let it fester and grow until he couldn’t take it any longer. He would start to push my buttons in an attempt to encourage a fight. If he made the offensive comment and I did not respond immediately he viewed it as weakness on my part, which prompted him to fire at me again. Our fights were usually short and simple, involving rolling around on the ground, trying to get each other in a headlock and then it was over.
Oh, how things have changed. These days, there is more lasting damage done to individuals and friendships via the Internet than ever before. Kids are more comfortable expressing their feelings online. In many cases, they do not see the sometimes devastating effect their words can have on their intended target. Comments can range from criticism to sarcasm to downright anger and character assassination. It’s a no-holds-barred world of nameless, faceless, anonymous individuals who use the Internet to their advantage with no apparent consequences. Some can simply shrug off these attacks. However, children, preteens and especially teens can be extremely vulnerable.
Sites such as YouTube, where people of all ages can put their talents on display, have become a favorite site for cyberbullies to use to their advantage. Instead of receiving encouragement, people eager to share their passion are mocked. Trolling or throwing insulting and slanderous statements for no other reason than to stroke one’s ego or for amusement is actually encouraged. In the real world there are societal consciences to such acts; however in the cyber world bullies feel they can act without any repercussions.
There is a great variance of age and sensitivity of the users on the Internet. A young child uploading a silly video of them rapping may receive unintended backlash. Bullies may see the video as an opportunity to be cruel. These comments, if taken personally, could have a traumatic effect on the child.
A DUAL THREAT
The real danger comes from the unchecked link to the real world. Online personal attacks can be actual extensions of bullying at school. The same child that is a target of cyberbullies may also become a target for schoolyard bullies. This dual threat can compound the victim’s trauma. Besides having to deal with hurtful comments, the child or teen victim may have to deal with bullying in the forms of embarrassing photos, malicious jokes, even threatening emails or texts.
THE ROLE OF LAW ENFORCEMENT
We in law enforcement are becoming accustomed to the growing effects of the Internet. In many ways, this is new territory for us. The difference between cyberbullying and cyber harassment is one of age. Both parties must be juveniles for the act to be classified as cyberbullying. The seriousness of the occurrences is broken down in four main categories of threats: the kind, the frequency, the source and the nature.
The kinds of threats can include lewd language or insulting or threatening a child. The frequency of the threats is determined by their increasing nature or if an outside third party becomes involved. The source of the threats is determined by your child suspecting who’s bullying them or if a stranger may be involved. Lately, the nature of the threats may be the clearest indicator of a potential crime. These may include breaking into your account, stealing passwords, posting sexual images, sharing personal information about a minor or masquerading as a child. As the threat level increases, a better case can be made for law enforcement to act.
HOW TO HELP YOUR CHILD
Only one in 10 victims will tell their parents or a trusted adult of their abuse. Unfortunately, cyberbullying is not easy to trace. Comments can be posted anonymously. Additionally, preteens and teens tend to fight for privacy on their phones and online. One clue to suspect a child has been a target of cyberbullying is a sudden change in the child’s behavior.
One of the best recommendations is to offer unconditional emotional support to the child. Many times it’s easy for adults to disregard cyberbullying and advise a child to not take the comments seriously or just suck it up; it’s part of life. However, with the advancement of technology, a child’s wellbeing can be severely affected if parents and adults don’t acknowledge the seriousness of cyberbullying. Remember, what our children and grandchildren are dealing with today is totally different than what you and I probably had to face growing up.
Cyberspace can be a risky place for the innocent and uneducated. As always, the best prevention is open communication, allowing your children the freedom to come to you with questions or concerns.
Joe Hoy is the Eagle County sheriff.
‘There are only two mistakes one can make along the road to truth; not going all the way, and not starting.’