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Cyberbullying follows kids home, creating 24/7 problem
Facebook and MySpace have changed the world in many ways
Connie White, director of technology and media at Lakeview Academy in Gainesville, leads a parent training class Wednesday on setting up parental controls on electronic devices and how to monitor children’s activities online. - photo by SARA GUEVARA

The advent of the Internet and social networking sites such as Facebook and MySpace has changed the world in many ways, but for a growing number of children, this connectedness brings about a terrifying world of 24-hour bullying.

Cyberbullies use text messages, e-mails, social networking and blogs to harass and embarrass others or stir up hate anonymously. Its effects can be long-lasting and even fatal.

Cyberbullying can cause anxiety, depression, an unwillingness to attend school and even can lead to suicide.

The Cyberbullying Research Center, an organization that has studied the trend since 2005, found this year that 20 percent of students had experienced cyberbulling in their lifetime. The survey sampled more than 4,000 youths between the ages of 10 and 18.

"Cyberbullying has become a bigger issue because we have more children online for much longer periods of time," said Connie White, director of technology and media at Lakeview Academy in Gainesville.

While kids are still at risk for physical and verbal bullying, today's technology can magnify a bully's potential impact. Bullying online gives schoolyard tormentors an arsenal of new options.

White said FormSpring, a social media tool, allows users to post comments about people anonymously, and children are beginning to sign up for social networking sites such as Facebook at a much younger age.

"Young children often don't have the ability to think about how their words sound to someone else," White said. "There can be a disconnect between what they intend to say and what they say."

School officials from the Hall County and Gainesville systems said cases of cyberbullying likely have increased over the years, but there is little data to support it.

The Georgia Student Health Survey, conducted each year, contains bullying data, but it isn't specific to online harassment.

"There have been recent conversations among people in my field that we need specific data on the new cyberbullying because we don't have that information," said Carol Ann Ligon, Safe and Drug Free specialist for Hall County. "We know the numbers would be significantly higher if we could get kids to report."

As bullying becomes more prevalent in the digital world, local schools are beginning to turn to new programs, including those that promote more positive uses of technology.

In the past several years, students at Lakeview Academy have been providing Internet safety talks to schools, churches and community groups.

This year, the Advisory Council in Technology for Students expanded its role to help with the ongoing development of school policy on bullying.

White explained that one new project this year is called "Talk About It." The program allows young people to send anonymous texts to designated faculty members at Lakeview. Faculty can instantly see the messages and can help students safely bring a resolution to issues like cyberbullying.

"With cyberbullying, sometimes students feel they can't tell anyone. So that's a really good tool, it gives kids some place to go," White said. "It also gives us a lot of data to know what the issues are so we can target our resources."

In Hall County, school officials have released a technology primer for parents, who feel may feel overwhelmed by the advances in digital devices.

Cell phones, for instance, can often be mobile computers, which can text, send e-mails and connect to the Internet, Jim Sargent, Hall County director of student services said. In the booklet "Net Cetera," parents can learn about parental controls and how to protect their child's online profiles.

"Every home in Hall County got a copy of that," Sargent said.

Though strategies for dealing with cyberbullying are just getting under way, White said there are some solutions for those caught in a digital web of harassment.

Her advice is to block the offender, change phone numbers, e-mails and screen names, and if necessary, tell school authorities.

If children get caught in a crisis, White said parents should also preserve the evidence by taking a screenshot photo of the offending material.

"This gives you evidence," White said. "Sometimes when something is posted on Facebook it can disappear if someone removes it. But if you have the evidence, you can go to school officials."

Cyberbullies can be held liable, she said, and could be subject to school-imposed consequences or the termination of online services by the service provider. If the case involves defamatory statements, the individual could also be sued by the victim, she added.

While schools can often provide guidance about cyberbullying, White said it's important for parents to set the tone for proper digital usage. There are several software programs to help parents monitor their child's online activity, and parents should try to stay up to date on their child's gadgets.

"Parents who become more tech-savvy can be involved in the technology and help children make choices," she said. "They can learn not to overreact and keep a line of communication open."

The best time to set the rules is before the children receive the devices, she added.

"It can be more difficult to be strict once it's in place," White said.