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Cyberbullying has Real Life Consequences

Experts say cyber attacks can be just as harmful as the real thing.

One reason parents might find solace in watching their children hunched over "iPhones" or hypnotized by "World of Warcraft" is that they figure, "At least my kids aren't getting bullied."

But despite teens' and pre-teens' changed interests with the advent of new technology, their social conduct seems to have stayed the same.  Now, rather than harass each other in the traditional way (with name-calling or exclusion in the cafeteria) they've turned to their gadgets to engage in foul play.

On her website stopcyberbullying.org, internet privacy lawyer Parry Aftab defines cyberbullying as, "When a child, pre-teen or teen is tormented, threatened, harassed, humiliated or otherwise targeted by another child…using technology."

Given the prevalence of computers, cellular phones and gaming equipment, both in schools and at home, Tarrytown and Sleepy Hollow kids are constantly at risk of becoming involved in this 21st-century phenomenon.

"I've definitely encountered some incidents in which kids were beating-up on other kids using e-mail or text messaging," said Dr. Cheryl Burton, social worker at Sleepy Hollow Middle and High Schools. "The most recent case involved middle school girls threatening another girl via e-mail."

According to a study published on US Department of Health and Human Services' website www.stopbullyingnow.hrsa.gov, "girls were about twice as likely as boys to be victims and perpetrators of cyber bullying… and of those students who had been cyberbullied relatively frequently (at least twice in the last couple of months), 62% said that they had been cyberbullied by another student at school, and 46% had been cyberbullied by a friend."

Burton also noted that technology has changed the face of dating in Sleepy Hollow.

"I'm not sure whether you can call it bullying, but students use technology to assert control over boyfriends or girlfriends," she said. "They think being in a relationship means you can force another person to keep his or her phone on all night or respond to messages whenever they're sent."

Although these scenarios may seem innocuous, Aftab—who is also director of internet safety charity, "Wired Safety Group"—stresses that unmonitored cyberbullying can be devastating or even lethal.

"Children have killed each other or committed suicide after having been involved in a cyberbullying incident," she said.

In an effort to combat bullying even before it starts, Burton holds workshops to promote acceptance and tolerance.

As coordinator of the high school's African American Heritage Club, Burton joined with leaders of the Gay-Straight Alliance to plan a school-wide anti-bullying activity this month.

"With their homerooms, students were asked whether they had either been bullied or victimized in the past.  By talking about it, we hope kids will see how detrimental this behavior can be."

Technology, though, has changed somewhat the traditional roles of bully and victim.

"I've noticed that kids will bully other kids on the internet when they don't have confidence in themselves physically," Burton said.

Aftab agreed that children can "quickly change roles from victim to bully to victim again."

"A few years ago I attended an EPTA meeting with a speaker who advised parents to open real "MySpace" accounts to monitor whether our children's pages were appropriate," said Emily Clary, a district parent and social worker at Tappan Hill School.

Though it is not technically a case of cyberbullying (because it involved harassment of an adult), the Sleepy Hollow Police Department reported this January that two Facebook accounts had been opened in the name of a local middle school teacher, both containing sexually explicit materials.

Police were unable to determine whether students were responsible for creating the false accounts, but any child with access to a computer is capable of such action.

Aftab believes children and teen's knowledge that they can so easily get away with cyberbullying and cyber-harassment is insidious and can lead to devastating acts of violence.

"Kids don't know what's at stake when they're sitting at the computer," she said. "MRI scans have shown that they live in the moment and can't even contemplate the consequences of how they misuse technology." 

Is your teen safe on the Internet?

Cyber Friend or Foe? What Parents and Teens Need to Know.

This Sunday, March 7, at 7 p.m. the Double Tree Hotel in Tarrytown will host a program for middle and high school students, parents and educators about cyber bullying. For more information visit the JCC on the Hudson site. The event is free, but please register at 914.366.7898.

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