Question: A good friend of mine is very worried about her 12-year-old daughter who is being “cyber-bullied” when she uses the computer at home. She told me that other kids are saying mean things about her (she is fat, ugly, etc.) when they instant message each other or chat online. How do people stop this sort of thing from continuing on?


Answer: I really understand how frustrating this is for you and your friend, and how very scary and awful this is for her 12-year old daughter. And it seems like this problem is just expanding with our ever-increasing digital world. We may have a lot of readers who don’t quite understand what “cyber-bullying” is so let me explain that first.


Cyber-bullying, also known as electronic bullying or online social cruelty, is defined as bullying through email, instant messaging, chat room, website, gaming site or digital messages and images sent to a cell phone. What sets this type of bullying apart from “school yard” bullying is that it can happen anywhere at anytime, can be completely anonymous, and can be spread across a wide audience in a short period of time. It is also very hard to monitor and since it is happening after school is very hard for teachers and school administrators to control.


The situation that your friend’s daughter is living is becoming more commonplace and even more disturbing. We are hearing a lot about children posting insulting messages in a chat room so that the entire school reads it after school. Or using an equally disturbing tactic called Internet Polling where one child asks hundreds of other children to vote for “who is the biggest slut in the 8th grade.” Many parents are asking themselves why young people are engaging in this type of activity.


The reasons are similar to why children bullied in yours or my generation. They do it because they see others doing it and because it is what makes them feel stronger, smarter or better than others. The difference is that there are no immediate consequences to their actions because they are anonymous and private, and they don’t see the actual pain that it causes to their victim. Children become desensitized to this type of behaviour and the victim becomes dehumanized in this digital age.


There are no easy answers to help your friend’s daughter but here are a few things to consider. Make sure to tell her that it is not her fault and there is nothing wrong with her. Explain that children who bully (and this is the same for adults) are trying to look big and powerful when underneath they must feel weak and powerless. This is not about her changing but about others changing their behaviour. I would also suggest limiting her time on the computer and not responding to the insults. This often increases the bullying behaviour because they get some reaction out of it. Depending how bad it is, I would suggest that her parents talk to her school and ask for help. If there are threats, then her parents may want to talk to the police.


The most important way to protect children from this type of bullying is through prevention and education so that we can protect children from this type of abuse starting in the first place. I encourage all parents to talk to their children about their safety, but also about the importance in not colluding with cyber-bullying and intervening on behalf of someone else who is being bullied. I am sure most of us remember a time from our childhood where we didn’t step in and help stop another child from getting picked on. Let’s help our children do better than we did.