Preventing the next cyber bully

On Oct. 12, 2012, Amanda Todd, 15, committed suicide after enduring months of cyber bullying.

An 8-minute YouTube video posted by Todd a month before her death detailed the abuse she received, and a plea for help.

The video went viral after her death and has received more than 18 million views.

October is bullying awareness month in the U.S. In Canada, Amanda Todd’s home country, November is anti-bullying month.

Although many communities and media outlets have drawn attention to cyber-bullying issues, little is known about the best ways to prevent it.

One area where the research is clear has to do with why teens don’t seek help for cyber bullying. We now know that most teens won’t tell adults about being bullied online because they fear being cut off from technology. They also fear more intimidation and isolation.

Cyber bullies don’t discriminate based on race, ethnicity or socioeconomic status. There’s small difference when it comes to gender.

According to Dr. Brett Holfeld, Banting postdoctoral fellow at the University of Victoria, girls are only slightly more likely to be victims of cyber bullying.

Holfeld’s recent research, published in the September 2014 issue of “Computers in Human Behavior,” focuses on middle-school students and bullying. He suggests that kids should be taught about appropriate online behavior — starting in middle school.

“Middle-school students need to understand that some individuals are negatively impacted by jokes or comments posted online even if the posts are intended as jokes,” Holfeld said. “Because you can’t directly see another student’s reaction online, it may be difficult to identify when a student has been victimized.”

Holfeld believes that middle-schoolers can help prevent cyber bullying. For example, if your children see others being bullied online, tell them to reach out to see if their friends are OK. It’s important that victims of cyber bullying feel like they’re not alone.

Parents with children who are beginning to venture online should prepare them in advance for navigating the virtual social world. But here’s the trick: Looking over your kid’s shoulder while they’re online isn’t enough.

And it probably won’t decrease the amount of cyber bullying they might experience. It comes down to developing open lines of communication with your children about online behaviors and netiquette, a form of online etiquette.

“In these cases, children may be more likely to tell parents about things they see online — things they’re uncomfortable with,” Holfeld said. “It’s important for children to feel like they can trust you if something happens.”

The legacy of Amanda Todd is this: The online world may be virtual, but the pain and the people who feel the pain of cyber bullying are real.

More than ever, parents have the ability to empower their children with the skills and strategies for dealing with cyber bullies and while they connect to family, friends and others online.

Dr. Adam Earnheardt is chairman of the department of communication at Youngstown State University. Follow him on Twitter at @adamearn.

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