Updated Sept. 30
The body of a Rutgers college freshman Tyler Clementi was found after his roommate and a high school friend broadcast his sexual exploits on the internet -- the latest incident of suicide caused by cyber bullying.
A group of six Massachusetts teens will soon go on trial for the cyberbullying death of Phoebe Prince, a 15-year-old who hung herself after months of taunting. These cases have drawn international attention to the topic, even though these are only the only the latest teens who were apparently bullied to death. One New York girl even continued to be bullied after she'd killed herself.
Bullies, of course, are nothing new. But parents need to understand that cyberbullies -- like cyberstalkers -- are potentially more dangerous than the physical bullies and stalkers. That's because they can follow you home and infiltrate areas that otherwise appear safe.
"In the physical world, bad things -- like bullying -- can happen when your kid goes to school," said Hemanshu Nigam, founder of SSPBlue.com and a White House advisor on cyberstalking. "But then the child comes home and has time to regroup and get stronger in a safe environment."
The online world changes that, he added. Computers, cellphones and iPads bring the bullies and stalkers to you 24/7.
"The wealth of technology that's out there allows the penetration of bad things even after kids have left that physical setting," Nigam added. "Just because they are in their bedrooms doesn't mean they've reached a safe place."
You also need to know whether your child is participating in bullying, said Stanley Holditch, marketing manager at InternetSafety.com. Law enforcement authorities are taking cyberbullying increasingly seriously, pursuing criminal cases against kids whose bad behavior contributed to a death. This is not a school-yard problem anymore.
How can you spot and stop cyberbullying and cyberstalking?
Beware bad neighborhoods: Just like bad areas in the physical world, there are online neighborhoods where kids should not tread, said Holditch.
Some examples: "Chat rooms" are the top spot for online predators, he says. "Go to a chat room posing as a 13-year-old girl, and within minutes you'll be asked to go into a private chat with a 25-year-old plus person," he said.
"Most parents wouldn't drop a kid off at a party where there are people of all different ages and from all over the world, but that's what you're doing when you provide unfiltered access to a computer."
When I searched "kids' chat rooms" on Google, for example, up popped a site called "WooMe" that's not for kids at all. The site encouraged me to post a photo --I didn't. When registering, It only allows you to say you're 18 or older. The upshot: My photo-less profile of an 18-year-old girl who volunteered absolutely no information about herself, had generated 8 "private messages" within minutes of registration. The only saving grace is that you'd have to plug in payment information to see those private messages at this site.
Meanwhile, dangerous sites for bullying can include Facebook, Twitter and MySpace. But more often, they're sites where the bullies can remain anonymous, Holditch said. A site that played a role in Prince's death was FormSpring.me, a social networking site that allows kids to ask questions -- like "why are you so ugly?" Or "why does everyone hate you?" -- without using their names. FormSpring has since instituted some controls, allowing moderators to reject some questions. Another site called StickyDramas may be worse, Holditch added, and new -- and often increasingly dangerous -- sites spring up daily.
If you want to know whether your kids have been hanging in bad online neighborhoods, you've got to venture into cyberspace yourself, Holditch said. Start by regularly checking the "history" on the web browser. If you see sites you don't recognize, click on them to find out what they're about. If your child is sophisticated enough to browse on "private" settings or clear their history, you'll need to do more than a simple check.
Put up fences: If you don't think you're savvy enough to monitor what your child is doing online, you can buy a monitoring service like SafetyWeb or SocialShield for as little as $100 annually. There are also free or inexpensive products that can block your child's access to websites and content that you find inappropriate. Your kids will know that they're being blocked, but won't necessarily know if you're monitoring them.
Every parent should tell their kids where they can and cannot go online and enforce those boundaries, Holditch added. InternetSaftey has a web-rules contract that they suggest parents and kids print and sign together.
Spy. If you suspect that your child is sneaking around on the web and is too smart to leave a trail, you may want to buy spy software from someone like SpectorSoft. This software will copy everything your child does on his or her computer, allowing you to view actual screen shots and conversations. The personal version retails for just under $100.
Collect the cell: Late-night cell messages can not only bully your kids, they can keep them awake and make it more difficult for them to do well at school, said Judy Kuczynski, president of Bully Police USA, a group formed by Brenda High, when her son Jared took his own life. Take the cell away before bed. You can look at the text-message history here, too, if you think you need to.
Go public: Put computers in public rooms, where you can easily glance over to see what your child is doing online. But realize the area is only public if you're paying attention. The kids who are at greatest risk online are the ones who are at greatest risk in the physical world, Nigam said. They're the ones whose parents are mentally or physically not available.
Talk. Parents often have a good sense of when something is amiss, but they might dismiss their worries as being overblown. Teenagers are often moody, we tell ourselves. This is probably just normal.
"Take those instincts seriously," Nigam said.
If your parental antenna tells you to worry, spend additional time trying to open the channels of communication. If the child isn't talking about what's bothering him or her, broach nuetral topics. Ask them to show you sites that they think are cool online, Nigam suggested. That can be an opening to a bigger conversation.
Emphasize character: What if you suspect that your kid could be the bully, rather than the bullied? Make sure that you spell out the rules of acceptable behavior -- both online and in person. Kids will often do things online that they'd never do in person, simply because they don't have to face another person eye-to-eye.
Tyler Clementi didn't go to bad cyber neighborhoods. His death was the direct cause of the insensitivity of his roommate and a high school friend, who are now being charged with criminal violations of privacy. Many experts say more serious charges could follow, such as the civil rights charges that Phoebe Prince's tormentors now face. If you won't emphasize kindness for moral reasons, do it to keep your kids out of prison.
Be the bad guy: Don't hesitate to be the "unpopular" parent by turning off the web or cell phone or setting tough rules and restrictions, added Kuczynski. Realize that if you say "no" to something, your child is allowed to still be "cool" without succumbing to the destructive vortex that sucked in his or her friends. Why? The child can blame "her crazy-strict mom" or her "mean dad." Being the strict parent who pays attention is a gift you give to your kids.
"Our kids live in an age when socialization is tied to electronic devices that can go off at 3 a.m. There is no safe time, unless a parent is involved and takes the time to monitor what's going on," Kuczynski said.
"Expecting children to have the maturity, the sophistication and confidence to do something about it, is impossible," she adds. "This is an adult problem. Parents need to step in."