Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words (and texts, and images, and stolen passwords) will never hurt me.

That playground chant never rang true, even when updated for the information age. Bullying hurts just as much online. And it’s far more common than other risks to children who use the Internet, including online sexual predators.

What Is Cyberbullying?

A cyberbully is someone who uses Internet technology to act cruelly toward another person. Online attacks often hurt more than face-to-face bullying because children can be anonymous over the Internet and behave in ways they never would in person. Online attacks can take on a life of their own: A false rumor or a cruel prank can spread quickly among classmates and live on forever in personal computers and cell phones. And there can be no escape for the victim. A fresh new attack threatens wherever there’s an Internet connection, including the one place where they should feel safe: home.

A cyberbully might:

  • Use a cell phone to make repeated prank phone calls or send unwanted text messages to the victim.
  • Post cruel comments to the victim’s social networking site or send unkind or rude emails or instant messages to the victim.
  • Create a fake social networking profile to embarrass the victim.
  • Use a victim’s password to break into his account, change the settings, lock the victim out, and impersonate the victim.
  • Forward the victim’s private messages or photos to classmates and others. Sometimes the bully will trick the victim into revealing personal information for this purpose.
  • Forward or post embarrassing or unflattering photos or videos of the victim.
  • Spread malicious rumors through IM, text messages, social networking sites, or other public forums.
  • Gang up on or humiliate the victim in online virtual worlds or online games.

5 Ways To Protect Your Child

Cyberbullying is most common among middle schoolers, but it can begin as early as 2nd grade, according to a 2008 Rochester Institute of Technology survey of 40,000 K-12 students. It’s never too early to talk with your child about cyberbullying.

  1. Remind your child never to share his passwords, even with good friends.

  2. If your child has an experience online that frightens her or hurts her feelings, she should let you know right away. If possible, save the evidence in case you need to take further action.

  3. Don’t respond to the bully. This is what the bully wants. If he sees that your child is upset, he’s likely to torment her even more. Tell your child to take a deep breath, walk away from the computer if necessary, and ignore the harassment. Her next step should be to block the bully from contacting her again by using privacy settings and preferences.

  4. Remind your child to treat others as he wants to be treated. This means not striking back when someone is mean to him and to support friends and others who are being cyberbullied.

  5. Finally, limit the amount of time your child is online. The Rochester Institute of Technology study showed that children are more likely to get into trouble on the Internet—including bullying others or being bullied—the more time they spend online.

Is Your Child a Victim?

Most children won’t tell their parents that they’re being bullied because they’re afraid their parents will take away the Internet or insist on complaining to the bully’s parents. Sometimes children who are bullied are ashamed and blame themselves. Reassure your child that nobody deserves to be mistreated. Tell her that some people try to hurt others to make themselves feel better or because they’ve been bullied themselves. Let your child know that it’s important for you to know what’s going on so you can help her.

Signs that your child is being bullied can be hard to spot but may include:

  • Seeming nervous or unusually quiet, especially after being online.
  • Wanting to spend more or less time than usual on online activities.
  • Not wanting to go outdoors or to school.
  • Problems sleeping or eating.
  • Headaches or stomachaches.
  • Trouble focusing on schoolwork.

If you suspect your child is being cyberbullied, bring it up gently. Tell your child that by talking it over, you can work out a plan to deal with it. You might:

Contact the bully’s parents. Be careful if you decide to do this because it can backfire and make the bullying worse. It’s best if you already know the other child’s parents and get along with them.

Contact your school officials. Make them aware of the problem and ask them to be on the lookout for signs that your child is being bullied at school. The school counselor or principal may have some strategies or even programs in place for handling bullying in school.

Look into filing a complaint against the bully if the behavior persists. Most internet service providers, websites, and cell phone companies have policies against harassment. You may be able to have the bully’s account revoked.

Contact the police if you fear for your child’s safety. Cyberbullying can cross into criminal behavior if it includes threats of violence, extortion, child pornography, obscenity, stalking, extreme harassment, or hate crimes.

If you learn that your child is being cruel to someone online, find out why. Often, cyberbullies are victims themselves. If this is the case with your child, go over the suggestions to help protect himself against being bullied. But remind him that bullying someone online or off is never OK and that using the Internet is a privilege that will be revoked if misused.

If your child notices someone else being picked on, encourage him to support the victim. Many social websites, such as YouTube and Facebook, allow users to report abuse. And bullies often back down when others make it clear they won’t tolerate rude or nasty behavior.

Cyberbullying may be the most common online danger, but as a parent, talking openly about the issue is the best way to give your child the tools to protect herself from virtual sticks and stones.