Dr. Phil McGraw
Special to CNN
If you think cyberbullying isn’t really that big of a deal, or just kids being kids, let me throw a few facts at you: More than 40 percent of kids in this country say they’ve been bullied on the internet, and 35 percent say they have received online threats. According to the Cyberbullying Research Center, cyberbullying victims are almost twice as likely to attempt suicide compared to those who have not endured such bullying. Since 2003, at least a dozen young people between the ages of 11 and 18 have killed themselves after some form of cyberbullying.
The Dr. Phil show has been inundated with letters and calls from kids desperate to escape these keyboard bullies - omnipresent, electronic stalkers who go after them day and night, destroy their reputations, if not their lives, and then log off their computers and disappear. For every sickening cyberbully incident you read about — such as the suicide of Rutgers University college student Tyler Clementi, after he learned a roommate had allegedly videotaped his sexual encounter with another young man and streamed it live online — there are at least a half dozen more that never make headlines.
It’s flabbergasting. When I was young, bullies intimidated with their physical size and words. Now, they have Facebook, MySpace, e-mail, texting, message boards, comment fields, blocked calls, instant messaging and chat rooms. And what these keyboard cowards can accomplish with those weapons is exponentially greater than what the old-school bully was once able to do on a playground or in the school cafeteria.
Under the cloak of anonymity, a cyber bully can wage an emotional and psychological war with a few keystrokes — disclosing personal photos, sending group e-mails with the intent of humiliating an individual, sending threatening e-mails, posting embarrassing or mean messages for others to comment on or share. By using false identities, a cyber bully also can make his victim feel that legions of other kids despise him or her.
In a matter of seconds, a cyber bully can completely destroy a fragile adolescent’s reputation. And what makes it worse for the victims is that there is absolutely no place for them to hide. In my day, you could at least get away from your attacker by retreating to the safety of your own home. Not anymore. Parents, think about it: Your child may be sitting at home, doing homework, reading, relaxing or watching television – just being a kid, and suddenly and relentlessly, he or she may start receiving taunting e-mails: “You’re ugly.” “No one likes you.” “We are going to beat you up tomorrow.” “We all wish you would just die.” “No one wants you here, so why don’t you just kill yourself?” Cyber bullies strike at any time, and they follow their targets everywhere — not only into their homes, but from school to school, even across the country.
And a cyber message spreads like wild fire. By word of mouth alone, a rumor might reach 20 people. An online posting has the ability to reach millions — even if it doesn’t, to the victim, it will feel like the entire world has seen it. Unlike the old days, when whatever was written on the wall could be erased or painted over, it is impossible to un-ring the “cyber-bell.”
Later this week, I will be joining Anderson Cooper on AC360 and again Friday for “Bullying: No Escape,” an AC360° Special Report with PEOPLE Magazine and Cartoon Network, to address the impact bullying is having on young people in America. I’m sure there are many parents who still don’t fully understand its reach and how it may already be affecting their children. Too many victims suffer in silence because of the shame and embarrassment they feel. Others may experience symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. Some decompensate and lose touch with reality. Their grades drop because they are afraid to go to school. Their friends disappear. They become even more humiliated — and yes, more isolated — as the harassment continues for weeks, months and even years. Too many of these children become so distraught that they turn to desperate measures and do the unthinkable.
Bullies, be on notice. We’re using AC360, Friday’s “Bullying: No Escape,” Special Report and the Dr. Phil show
as platforms to spur a national movement to fight back against this growing, insidious epidemic. On Wednesday, October 6, the Dr. Phil show is bringing in a panel of experts to examine this disturbing trend, shining a spotlight on recent headlines to raise awareness, and taking a closer look at the laws currently in effect to hold bullies accountable. And then, we’re following it up with another show on Thursday to kick off our Anti-Bullying Movement.
It’s time to get to work. The lightning speed at which technology is advancing demands our immediate response. Our schools and parents need to start discussing the potential dangers of the internet and the impact of cyberbullying with their kids; teach them a responsible way to use the internet and make them understand that harassing someone online is just as destructive as tormenting them in person. We need to add language to the Elementary and Secondary Education Act to give schools more power to crack down on cyberbullying, and provide counseling to not only its victims, but its offenders as well. It’s time to have serious discussions about what additional laws need to be written. For instance, if a victim of cyberbullying commits suicide; to what degree should the bully be held accountable for that death?
More than anything, it’s time for parents to know the warning signs and get more involved in their children’s online activities. Know what they’re doing on their computers, including the sites they visit, the social networks they belong to, and who they’re socializing or “chatting” with. Monitor their activity. Don’t let your kids tell you it’s an invasion of privacy. As a parent, you need to know.
And your kids need to know that posting information that may seem funny or like harmless gossip, or even retaliation to someone who’s crossed them, could destroy someone’s feelings or permanently damage their reputation. Make sure your children aren’t tempted to cross the line and become, even ever so briefly, internet bullies themselves. And if you suspect they are being bullies, don’t look the other way. Take initiative. Talk to them about why it’s wrong. As we must remember, just one malicious rumor can result in unimaginably deep emotional scars that can last a lifetime.
For those who may still be taking this lightly or thinking that cyberbullying can’t be all that big of a problem: Take a look at the faces of the children who have been bullied, and think about the moment young Tyler Clementi stood on the George Washington Bridge before he jumped, alone and devastated, his heart broken. It’s time to get involved.
Anderson Cooper goes beyond the headlines to tell stories from many points of view, so you can make up your own mind about the news. Tune in weeknights at 8 and 10 ET on CNN.
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