Internet safety key in cyber-bully battle

BRANDON — In a recent presentation at the Otter Valley Union High School auditorium, a mother detailed how she dealt with a case of Internet bullying affecting her own daughter. A teenage girl described how a family friend’s daughter killed herself after repeated bullying online.
While many area residents may not think that bullying on the Internet, or cyberbullying, happens here, local parents, students and educators know better. That’s why Kathy Kretz of Prevent Child Abuse Vermont was invited to give her Internet safety talk to students and parents at OVUHS and the Neshobe School on Aug. 31. The first talk was at Neshobe that morning, and at OV that afternoon. The lectures are aimed at students in grades 4-8.
A final talk at OV that evening was for parents, but there were also a few kids in the audience of roughly 20 people.
Kretz said 78 percent of teens that are harassed online don’t tell their parents, and 72 percent who have been contacted at least 10 times an hour by text or e-mail by a boyfriend or girlfriend do not tell their parents.
“Why?” she asked. “Because they don’t think it’s serious, or they think ‘I can handle it myself.’”
Cyberbullying is defined as sending messages via the Internet or cell phone text messaging meant to intimidate, harass, demean or degrade someone. With the advent and prevalence of e-mail, instant messaging and texting, cyberbullying has become a nationwide phenomenon, particularly among children age 10-17. In Vermont, cyberbullying is illegal under the statute that defines disorderly conduct using technology. Kretz said a conviction can lead to a fine of up to $250 and three months in jail.
And it’s not just kids. Kretz gave extreme examples of cyberbullying, including the case of Megan Meier, a 13-year-old from St. Louis, Mo. who, in October 2006, hung herself in her bedroom after a MySpace falling out and bullying encounter with who she thought was a 16-year-old boy named “Josh Evans.” Turned out that Josh Evans was a fictional boy, a fake profile created by the mother of an ex-friend to see if Megan was talking about her daughter behind her back.
After being bullied via instant messaging for two straight hours by “Josh” and other kids online, “Josh” posted: “The world would be a better place without you.”
Megan replied: “You’re the kind of boy a girl would kill herself over.”
“And that’s what she did,” Kretz said. “ We believe it’s the adults in a kid’s life who should protect them and here’s an adult cyberbullying a child.”
The mother, Lori Drew, was convicted in November 2008 on three crimes under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, but a judge later threw out the government’s case against Drew in July 2009 and acquitted her of three misdemeanor counts.
Closer to home, Kretz also described the case of Ryan Halligan, a 13-year-old from Essex Junction who hung himself following months of in-person bullying by a boy in his class. He was also the victim of cyberbullying after a girl at school traded instant massages with him during the summer of 2003, only to call him a “loser” when they returned to school in the fall. She also had passed Ryan’s messages to her onto other students in order to embarrass and humiliate him.
Ryan’s father, John Halligan, began to lobby for legislation in Vermont to improve how schools address bullying and suicide prevention. He has also given speeches to schools in various states — including in Middlebury — about the story of his son and the devastating effects of bullying and cyberbullying among teens.
Vermont subsequently enacted a Bullying Prevention Policy Law in May 2004 and later adopted a Suicide Prevention Law (Act 114) in 2005 closely following a draft submitted by Halligan. The law provides measures to assist teachers and others to recognize and respond to depression and suicide risks among teens. Legislators in other states proposing legislation to curb cyberbullying have also cited Halligan’s case.
“Kids say, ‘That would never happen in Vermont,’” Kretz said. “But the truth is, it can happen anywhere.”
Kretz also discussed the posting of pictures online, the dangers of social networking sites and sexual predators, web cams, and cell phones.
More facts Kretz said parents should know:
• Anyone can pretend to be your child’s age.
• Let your child know it’s OK to ask for help.
• Tell them to tell an adult if:
– They are sent messages or picture online that make them uncomfortable.
– Someone asks them to keep a secret.
– An adult they barely know asks to “friend” them online.
And on social networking sites such as Facebook and MySpace, Kretz said parent should make sure their kids:
• Set their profiles to “Private” so only friends can see it.
• Only “friend” people they know in person.
• Be very careful about what they post regarding photos or bullying comments.
Regarding cell phones, Kretz said kids should not answer calls from numbers they don’t recognize, only give their number out to people they know and trust, and be careful taking pictures with their phone because “they are saved even if they are deleted.”
She also said parents and kids should learn how to block certain numbers on their cell phones and how to lock the keypad.
In general, Kretz said parents should be vigilant about their child’s use of the Internet and cell phone. There is also filter and monitoring software that can block or record the Internet sites a child visits. Also, children should not have a computer with Internet access in their rooms. Kretz gave the following rules for parents to follow:
• The computer should be in a highly-visible location in the house
• Parents should “Friend” their child” so they can monitor the profile.
• Parents should have all of their child’s passwords.
• Check the browser’s cache regularly to see what sites their child has visited.
• Limit access time to the computer.
• Ask about unfamiliar e-mail addresses.
Above all, Kretz said parents should teach their children not to retaliate when faced with cyberbullying.
“Getting even contributes to the cycle of cyberbullying,” Kretz said. “It’s really important not to get even and stop that cycle. If you wouldn’t say it in person, don’t say it online.”
Signs a child is being cyberbullied include not wanting to go to school, being sick more often and depression.
Kretz told parents that the most important thing they can do is keep the lines of communication open and stay calm.
“Dialogue is crucial,” she said. “Listen, keep you cool and encourage your child to confide in you,” she said.
Kretz also said parents need to educates themselves about the Internet and stay informed on new social networking trends and applications. She reiterated again and again the “teachable moments” 21st Century technology offers, as well as the chance to improve lines of communication between parent and child.
“If your child is doing the bullying, teach empathy,” she said. “Apply reasonable consequences, set firm limits and follow through. In other words, good, old-fashioned parenting.”

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