Cyber Bullying: What to do if your child is involved

Cyber-bullying is a growing problem across the nation and right here in the Tri-States.

You'll recall just a couple of weeks ago, cyber-bullying was taking place in Ft. Madison. After two alleged teen suicide attempts, dozens of people on facebook posted hateful comments instead of writing words of sympathy. Read more about that incident here.

According to Dr. Andrea Fifield, the definition of cyber-bullying is the willful and repeated harm inflicted through computers, cell phones and other electronic devices.

She says the big challenge with cyber-bullying is there aren't a lot of laws on the books that schools can use as guides to develop policies on cyber-bullying. However in Missouri there are laws due to the case of Megan Meier, She was a 13-year-old girl who committed suicide after another girl's mother impersonated a boy online and broke up with her.

That's how many of learned about cyber-bullying.

Her death spurred laws not only in Missouri but Illinois and Iowa as well. Cyber-bullying now is covered under harrassment laws and is considered a misdemeanor. In Missouri special cases can upgrade charges to a class D felony.

But there are questions on when cyber-bullying can be prosecuted and when school districts can step in.

Click here to read the laws on the books in Illinois, Missouri and Iowa.

School Counselors from all over the Tri-States participated in a cyber-bullying workshop. Counselors on hand said it's a gray area they don't always understand.

We talked with Dr. Andrea Fifield who specializes in this problem to find out what you need to know about when a school is *required* to do to address cyber-bullying...and when its hands are tied.

Schools are required to have bullying and harrassment policies and cyber-bullying must be addressed in school guidelines.

Dr. Fifield said, "They need to think in advance about what types of violations they can punish and what the consequences should be for those violations."

Dr. Fifield says most cyber-bullying doesn't happen at school, it happens from computers at home. That brings up challenges for schools.

Dr. Fifield said, "Cyber bullying in particular is tricky because you can't violate a child's first amendment rights, you also have to be careful about sanctioning communications outside of the school building."

That's why schools have to know to know when to step in.

Dr. Fifield said, "If there are a set of threats made, first amendment goes out the window. You've made threats against the school or specific people, that can be reported to the authorities. But there are other instances that if the school can demonstrate that the communication that started off campus is creating a significant disruption on campus, then the school can go ahead and intervene."

Instead of dealing with consequences, Dr. Fifield encourages being proactive. Research shows anti-bullying or anti-violence campaigns in schools are effective if they educate the entire student body on tolerance and pro-social skills.

But while there is confusion on the role schools have to take to deal with it, parents also have a big role to play.

When it comes to cyber-bullying, Dr. Fifield says the first step is prevention. She suggests talking to kids about what's appropriate and civil behavior online. Also touch on ways to avoid being baited and how to control emotions while conversing online.

While that seems silly, how people talk to and treat each other is much more public these days because it's online...and that means hurtful comments or threats are being seen by many more people. And that makes humiliation public for all the world to see.

Dr. Fifield said, "There are a lot more witnesses and more bystanders that may not step in to defend you. There's a sense that when you read something online it's more permanent, that it doesn't just go away. There's also something about reading something about yourself over and over again because it's in print and it's on the page, there's a constant reminder there. It's not just Facebook for a kid and it doesn't stop if you turn off the computer, That's what a lot of parents would be tempted to do...just turn off the computer, but kids perceive that as being punished when they're the victims. So it's not as simple as turning off the computer people people are still reading it and it can still leak into the school system."

What can a parent do?

Dr. Fifield said, "Well they need to collect evidence, get in touch with the school, try to find out who the other person is and try to get in touch with the other person's parents and see if they can work something out between them to make sure that the behavior stops."

It's important to step in...for the bully and the bullier's sake. Things they learn now as a child will continue with them throughout their life. Bullied kids may begin believing the negative remarks...leading to low self-esteem and in the worst cases violent retaliation or suicide.

For the bullier...aggression will follow them throughout their lives as fact research has shown it's the best predictor of anti-social behavior and future physical violence.

Click here to find more information online at the Cyberbullying Research Center.