Before you start thinking it's a good thing that your teen is suddenly not on the computer 24/7, think again. Like any drastic change in behavior, there is usually more to the story. If he or she is being cyberbullied, the attacks can come any time of day through computers and cell phones; and it's not just in the form of "hate mail." Bullies use sabotage, extortion, impersonation, harassment, stealing and other criminal means to harm others, and the effects can be devastating.
Take the case of 13-year-old Ryan Halligan, who struggled academically and physically but was known as a kind, likable boy. When kids harassed him in elementary school with face-to-face name-calling, his parents taught him coping mechanisms, which seemed to do the trick. But in middle school, the torment began again, this time via the Internet. Rumors, humiliating words and images quickly spread throughout the school. Ryan's self-preservation strategies were no longer an effective defense against the cyberbullies. Ryan went into a deep depression and took his life in October 2003 [source: RyanPatrickHalligan.org].
While traditional schoolyard bullying pitted strong bullies against weaker victims, cyberbullying changes that dynamic. Today's technology enables anyone to inflict damage. Hiding behind their keyboards, bullies are no longer just the tough kids, nor are the victims just the wimpy kids. With no physical scars and only 5 percent of middle school victims reporting the attacks, you might not be able to tell whether someone you know is a target [source: CNN]. There are many possible warning signs that your friend of family member is a victim of cyberbulling, including the following:
- Sudden "fear" of technology
- Unexplained physical symptoms, including headaches, upset stomach, and trouble sleeping
- Lowered self-esteem
- Depression and anxiety
- Avoiding social or school events
- Change in school performance, attitude, dress and habits
While some victims of cyberbullying are tormented to the point of suicide, there are ways to fight back. First, don't respond to hateful e-mail -- it may backfire. Next, block the cyberbully from your "buddy list" or list of approved e-mail senders. Last but not least, tell a trusted adult. To prevent bullies from accessing your online world, don't share personal information and passwords. Regularly perform a Web search for your name to make sure nothing inappropriate pops up [source: Stop Cyberbullying].
Many people become emotionally involved with their Internet presences and online gaming. Their game avatars, or character personalities, might seem almost as real to them as their everyday lives. When their online life is threatened, some users can be as traumatized as if they were physically threatened. The same goes for social networking sites, where embarrassing or humiliating posts can be emotionally disastrous, especially to young people.
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