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Emotional Troubles for 'Cyberbullies' and Victims

Study Shows Mental and Physical Impact of Cyberbullying on Victims and Bullies

Staying Safe Online

Parry Aftab's life mission is to keep children and teens safe online. An Internet privacy and security lawyer in Fort Lee, N.J., Aftab is the executive director of wiredsafety.org, an online safety and educational site which is the parent group for a charity called stopcyberbullying.org.

"Cyberbullying is when a minor uses technology as a weapon to hurt another," she says. It can take many forms such as stealing another kid's password or his or her points in an online game or digitally adding a peer's face to a photo of a naked body and then posting it online (where it can quickly go viral), she says. "There are millions of different ways to [cyberbully]; it is limited only by the bandwidth and creativity of kids."

Cyberbullying changes the typical playground or schoolyard social structure. "It brings a whole different group of kids into the problem," she says. "Real-life victims can become online bullies because it is rarely a matter of size," she explains. "It gets the girls and geeks involved and they are normally the ones being bullied."

There is no escape from cyberbullies, she says. If a child was bullied at school, home was often a safe haven. But "teens are always connected, and technology follows you everywhere you are, 24-7," she says.  "Cyberbullying can have devastating consequences and parents need to understand that most kids have been cyberbullied at least once."

The question becomes what to do about it. Aftab's advice to teens who are victims of cyberbullies? "Stop, block, and tell," she says.

"Do not reply. Block the message and then tell a trusted adult," she says. Other tips include using non-obvious passwords and changing them after breakups to discourage hackers, she suggests.

Parents of children who are bullied online need to take a deep breath before they overreact and make things worse, she says. "If there is a teacher or guidance counselor with whom you have a good relationship, call that person first so your child won't be blamed as a tattletale," she advise. But "If there is a threat, you have to call the police."

Aftab's group is planning to release a free stop cyberbullying toolkit for schools in August.

Child psychoanalyst Leon Hoffman, MD, the executive director of the Bernard L. Pacella Parent Child Center in New York City, agrees with Aftab. "This paper stresses the importance of a no-tolerance policy that the adults have to enforce vigorously."

"This paper verifies that cyberbullying is a significant problem," Aftab tells WebMD. "More importantly, it promotes the idea that school and mental health personnel need to be aware of its existence."

More research is needed to get a better handle on some of the physical and mental characteristics of cyberbullies and their victims, he says. "Whether cyberbullying [victim or perpetrator or both] is the cause of a variety of problems or whether kids with a variety of psychosocial and medical problems are prone to bullying, victimization or both is a question that has to be studied."  

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