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Internet can be abused by cyberbullies
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Many parents may remember being a victim of physical and emotional suffering at the hands of a childhood bully. Others may regret being a bully when they were young.

Youth still are at risk for verbal and physical bullying, but today's technology dramatically increases a bully's potential impact. Internet bullying, or cyberbullying, gives schoolyard bullies a World Wide Web of options.

"The significant difference between cyberbullying and conventional bullying is the ability to hide one's identity," said Sharon Gibson, a UGA Cooperative Extension child development expert.

Gibson coordinates UGA's Children, Youth and Families at Risk Project in the College of Family and Consumer Sciences. She warns the technology used to make children safer and better equipped for educational advancement can be used against them.

"The difference is how far the verbal assault can spread and how fast it can spread. Technology propels bullying beyond the schoolyard or neighborhood to the world through the Web," Gibson said.

There are many different ways to be cyberbullied. One of the most common is hurtful or threatening instant messages. Other forms include creating a Web site or blog with embarrassing information or unflattering pictures of the victim. Pictures taken with a cell phone or digital camera also can be e-mailed, printed and posted to Web sites.

In the old days, kids would pass notes in class, collecting votes on various categories of students then post them on the bathroom wall. Today, Internet polling is a serious cyberbullying tool.

"(Internet polling) has a life of its own," Gibson said. "It can go out to hundreds of people."

When cyberbullies use Internet polling, they broadcast polls to get voters to cast their opinions on who belongs at the top of such condescending categories as dumbest and fattest, she said. The results are either shared with all the voters through e-mail or posted to Web sites.

In spite of the many misuses of technology, Gibson doesn't condemn using the Internet.

"The Internet doesn't necessarily lead to negative behavior," she said. "But cyberbullying can be more insidious because the victim can't easily escape from the bully."

To keep children safe on the Web, parents should use awareness as a form of protection, she said.

"Just as you know where your child is physically, so should you be aware of the places that your child is visiting on-line," Gibson said.

Also, because cyberbullying can happen at home or at school, parents should know school rules.

"Parents should ask the school what their policy is," Gibson said. "If (a policy) isn't in place, they should work to develop a school policy."

For more information go to the Children, Youth and Families at Risk Project.

Debbie Wilburn is county extension agent in family and consumer science with the Hall County Extension. Her Family Ties column appears in Sunday Life on the first Sunday of each month. Contact: 770-535-8290.