Excerpted from the book Internet Protect Your Kids by Steve Arterburn and Roger Marsh
By the time he reached middle school, Ryan though he’d faced his fears and defeated them. Ever since a bully started picking on him with a couple of buddies in the fifth grade, Ryan had lived on an emotional roller coaster. Now it appeared that things were finally beginning to even out or at least that’s what his parents thought.
School was always somewhat of a challenge for Ryan. He wasn’t exactly the smartest or most athletic kid in his class. He always gave his best effort, but preadolescence kids aren’t big on awarding ‘A’s for effort’ in the classroom or on the playground. A couple of aspiring young goons made Ryan for an easy mark, and the bullying was on.
Over the next two years, their taunting and teasing was relentless. So, in an effort to help his son develop better physical coordination and a healthier self-image, Ryan’s dad enrolled both he and his son in a kickboxing program. It seemed to work. Ryan loved working out with his dad, and his physical coordination steadily improved. John Halligan stressed with his son that he should never use these techniques to start and altercation, but finishing one was a completely different story.
It shouldn’t have come as a surprise, then, when John received a call from Ryan’s school one day that his son had been involved in a fight. The bully had started it, but Ryan hung in there right with him. Afterward, he seemed to have gained a new measure of self-respect, which made his parents proud.
That pride soon turned to concern when Ryan announced shortly after the fight that his former nemesis was now his good friend. Against their better judgment, the Halligan’s chose not to intervene a decision they would soon come to regret.
Burned by Flame Mail
Ryan had been active online for a couple of years at that point, and he seemed to relish his Internet communication with the former bully and other friends. But Ryan’s attitude became more sullen again over time, even more withdrawn than he’d ever been during the worst of the bullying he’d received in elementary school. Still, his parents kept their distance, hoping their son would be able to work through the issues on his own.
The middle schooler did all he could to convince his parents that nothing was wrong, that his former tormentor was now his friend. But in reality, that simply wasn’t true. Turns out the bullying did not end after the fight that day; it merely shifted to the Internet and grew even more intense. The bully who befriended Ryan convinced the shy boy to share some of his deepest personal secrets’ and then spread them around by posting them on his online profile.
Sometimes the bully would utilize ‘flame mail’ (an email blast designed to agitate or embarrass the recipient). ‘Flaming’ typically involves copying the flame mail to as many people as possible in this case, several hundred kids from Ryan’s middle school. The pain and humiliation of this constant online torment proved to be too much for Ryan.
Ryan Halligan was just thirteen years old when he took his own life. It was only after his death that his father began to understand the depth of the terror Ryan lived through every day online. He started reading through his son’s instant messages and discovered how cruel kids can be to each other. At the height of the harassment, even kids who didn’t know Ryan were getting in on the bullying.
Is Your Child Being Bullied Online?
At this point you may be asking yourself, Is one of my children the victim of cyberbullying right now? That’s a fair question, especially if you’ve never had this kind of conversation with your kids.
When we were growing up, most of the boys could quickly figure out who the ‘tough guys’ were. We had to decide either to stand and fight or find creative ways to avoid these guys. The same held true on the other side of the playground, as the ‘mean girls’ would rule their part of the school with cunning, conniving, and catty behavior.
Today, the cyberbully strikes in many of the same ways that the traditional school thug used to, with one major difference. The cyberbully can attack you even when you’re not around. In fact, you may not even know whether or not you’re being attacked. All it takes is one text message insinuating an embarrassing revelation about someone (for example, ‘Dude, Jeff told me he’s gay!), and that message will be posted and pushed to literally thousands of Internet and cell phone users in a matter of seconds.
How to Protect Your Kids from Cyberbullies
1. Caution them not to engage with or retaliate against a cyberbully.
2. Have them save any email or instant message communication they’ve had with the bully. Should the bullying lead to a criminal action, your records will prove most helpful to the law enforcement officials assigned to your child’s case.
3. Teach them to recognize flame mail when they see it. (Some bullies will try to bait their victims into trying to defend themselves against false accusations. Let your kids know they don’t need to take the bait. Do not respond but save and file. )
4. Encourage them to become observers of bullying tactics. The passive aggressive behavior of cyberbullying makes it a challenge to patrol. Sometimes it involves something as seemingly harmless as a child’s away message on instant message that makes a veiled derogatory reference to a fellow classmate or a former friend. Oftentimes, these exchanges go back and forth for a couple of hours or days, and then blow over. But when they don’t, your child may be dealing with a cyberbully.
5. Believe them when they say they’re being bullied online. Assure them that you’ll walk through each step of the process with them to end the attacks. Most adolescent kids usually fall into two categories when it comes to how they think their parents view them: they either think their parents don’t care about them, or they figure that their parents can’t possibly relate to what their going through. But even mature adults find it difficult when they’re bullied and harassed themselves. Showing your kids your own vulnerability in this area will give them a deeper sense of connection with you as you walk through this situation together.
These are just a few examples of how you can begin to Internet Protect Your Kids. If you found this information helpful, please see explore the full content of the book Internet Protect Your Kids.