Children Alone With the Computer: A Recipe for Cyber Bullying?

December 8, 2008

SEATTLE—Soon, more than 34 million U.S. children will be on winter break. As they face cold, often blustery weather, they will likely spend more time online without adult supervision, and thus be more exposed to cyber bullying. As a result, their winter break activities could adversely affect their emotional and physical health and school performance.

Children of all ages, as early as first grade, are at risk of increased exposure to cyber bullying when they are using the computer alone or without family “house rules,” says Joan Duffell, executive director of Committee for Children, a Seattle-based nonprofit that creates curricula to help children avoid violence and bullying. “Teachers and parents can guide children in practicing positive social behavior online and help them become cyber-safe so they can avoid this threat.”

“More and more children are going online to talk with friends, share pictures and have fun—just as they do at school and in other settings,” Duffell says. “We need to give children tools to help them make their cyber interactions healthy and constructive, just as we give them tools to be kind and caring in their ‘live’ interactions with others.”

Cyber bullying can range from threats, embarrassing or cruel rumors and harassment, to stalking and misuse of digital photos. “It can be vicious,” Duffell said.

“Even young children can experience emotional, physical, or school-related problems as a result of cyber bullying,” she added. According to a 2006 survey of 1,000 kids by anticrime organization Fight Crime: Invest in Kids, one-sixth of all children between the ages of 6 and 11 had mean, threatening, or embarrassing things said about them online. Children as young as 13 have committed suicide as a result of cyber bullying.

“When the child is alone, and young, the risks increase. That’s why it is important to help students and parents become more cyber-safe,” Duffell said. Here are some ways parents can help their children avoid cyber bullying:

  • Keep your child’s computer in a general family area—not in his or her room—so that you can interact more naturally about the messages your child reads or sends to friends.
  • Set rules about computer use, and consider password-protecting the computer so that your child won’t be using it when home alone.
  • Tell your child never to give out personal information without your permission when using email, visiting social networking sites, instant messaging, entering contests, or filling out any other online form, nor should your child ever tell anyone online he or she is alone.
  • Tell your child not to respond to messages that are suggestive, belligerent, or threatening or that make him or her feel uncomfortable. Nor should your child click on any links that are contained in an email from people he or she doesn’t know. Such links could lead to sexually explicit or otherwise inappropriate websites.
  • Talk about cyber bullying so that your child understands that although mean people on the Internet can hurt through their words, children can be safer if they don’t respond to mean emails or messages sent to them or their friends.

Finally, Duffell emphasizes, “Teach your children to treat their friends with kindness and respect, just as they would like to be treated—whether on the playground, in the neighborhood, or online. Encourage your children to come to you if they encounter material or messages that make them feel uncomfortable or threatened. It’s important that they know they will not be punished or forbidden from further Internet use if they become victims.”

A nonprofit leader in the field of social-emotional learning, Committee for Children publishes Second Step: A Violence Prevention Curriculum and three other programs that advance the social, intellectual, and physical well-being of children. These evidence-based prevention programs reach 9 million children in 21 countries and 25,000 schools around the world.