Cyberbullying – using electronic technology to humiliate, spread rumors or be mean to someone – and sexting – the sending or receiving of sexually explicit messages or photos electronically – can cause disruption and emotional pain to a child’s health and spirit. Both can make it difficult for the target of the bullying and the person doing the bullying or sexting to focus and learn in school.
Det. Sgt. Natalie Butenhoff, Breckenridge Police Department, regularly gives a presentation to students about staying safe while on the Internet. She uses the Netsmartz program, which has modules for young students, pre-teens and teenagers along with information for parents and educators.
“A lot of kids go home and say, ‘so and so is bullying me,’ and parents don’t know what to do or what to say,” she said.
She recommends checking out the Netsmartz.org website, for starters.
Signs to look for if you think your child is the victim of cyberbullying are:
• Avoids the computer, cell phone and other technological devices or appears stressed when receiving an email, instant message or text
• Withdraws from family and friends or acts reluctant to attend school and social events
• Avoids conversations about computer use
• Exhibits signs of low self-esteem including depression and/or fear
• Has declining grades
• Has poor sleeping habits
“A lot of kids don’t want to talk about it,” Butenhoff said, noting the majority of cyberbullying events are most likely never reported to adults.
“A lot of what I have heard, especially signs to look for, is the declining grades, the sleeping habits changing. They’re up worrying because they don’t know what’s going to happen the next day – maybe they’re being bullied because they look different or dress different or have different values than someone else.
“I think if parents really pay attention, which they need to, they will see some signs. They might have to think about it, go back a week or two and realize that was the day something changed. They need to follow up on it,” Butenhoff said. “If they’re normally cheery and all of a sudden something changes, you need to look into that.”
She said if particular bullying behavior fits into the Minnesota assault statute, the perpetrator can be charged with a crime.
“You don’t necessarily have to hit someone, but if you invoke the fear in them (it could be a crime). It can be done electronically. If they say or post, ‘I’m going to kill you,’ that’s going to invoke fear, depending on the circumstances. Those types of things can be taken pretty seriously,” she said.
Not all bad behavior is bullying
Experts say not every bad behavior is bullying. It has to meet certain criteria to be considered bullying, namely the aggressor must intend to hurt or intimidate someone less powerful, and the behavior must be repeated.
“As parents, tell your children, ‘it’s OK not to like someone, you’re not going to get along with everyone, that doesn’t mean you need to bully them or they need to bully you,’” Butenhoff said. “You just have differences. We won’t like everyone. It’s just differences in people.”
She advises parents to start educating their children at a young age, about what is acceptable and appropriate behavior.
She’s a big proponent of teaching children coping skills early on. She said if children are supported and taught to be confident and have self-esteem, they’ll be better equipped to deflect negative behavior when it comes their way. They’ll have a better chance of not turning to destructive behavior, such as violence or substance abuse later in life.
Many children who do the bullying behavior are often those who can’t cope with what’s going on inside themselves, so they lash out at someone who probably doesn’t deserve it in the least, she said.
“They’re throwing it on someone else who has a lack of coping skills. I’ve said it for a long time and I can’t say it enough. I don’t know what the answer is, but I think if it was initiated at a young age, it would make a difference,” Butenhoff said.
Resources for parents and educators
The Minnesota legislature has passed the Safe and Supportive Schools Act, which strengthens protections against the threat of bullying in Minnesota schools. The law provides local school districts the guidance, support and flexibility to adopt clear and enforceable school policies to help protect all students from bullying – whether done electronically or not.
“The Department of Education has recognized this is a problem, bullying is a problem, whether it’s face to face or cyberbullying,” Breckenridge Public Schools Superintendent Diane Cordes said. ‘“They have offered to school districts safe and healthy schools centers where they can help with resources.”
Educators have a number of resources that can give guidance on everything from how to handle situations in classrooms to legal issues and training sessions.
Breckenridge School District has several different policies related to Internet use, including how to manage one-to-one devices in the classroom. There are handbooks for both students and staff, which have been prepared by the district’s tech coordinator and tech integrationist that explain how to safely and appropriately use technology on school properties.
Every classroom has a “PRIDE” poster displayed, which is a reminder on how to use electronic devices safely and responsibly.
Cordes said she sees two issues when looking at addressing cyberbullying. The first is managing what occurs on school property. School-provided devices are highly filtered as to the type of content they can access, she explained. The second issue is what students are doing off school property with their personal devices.
“Often, when issues happen, it happens outside of the school. Students are in their homes, or somewhere outside of school on unfiltered sites or using their cell phones, which of course we have no control of, but it gets brought into school. That is very difficult to manage,” she said.
She said the district has to find the balance between determining what is their right to manage and what is not their business because it didn’t happen on school grounds.
“One of the first things, before we insert ourselves, we have to be able to say it’s disruptive to the classroom environment,” Cordes said. “That’s sometimes in the eyes of the beholder. When it’s being carried out in school, we believe it’s disruptive to the classroom environment and we’re going to insert ourselves somehow in that.
‘The first choice is always education – we will never punish away bullying, no matter what kind of bullying it is. We have to continue to educate, educate, educate and empower victims and educate bullies so that they both have the tools they need to overcome whatever the cause of the bullying is to begin with,” she said.
“We educate our kids. We say, listen, this is a great device, our intention for it is educational, but there’s no question it can be used for other things.
“We call it digital citizenship. We work a lot on it, and we want you to be good citizens in all areas,” Cordes continued. “We encourage each teacher to have digital citizenship rules in each classroom and expectations for device management.”
With children using technology at such an early age now, both in and out of the classroom, Cordes said parents and educators need to make sure those students are educated on how to safely use them.
“If we don’t teach them how to use it – it’s like giving them keys to the car without any instruction, and saying, ‘good luck, hope you learn how to use all those buttons’. We would never do that. We are learning we need to back up here a little bit and do some pre-teaching before we let kids have devices.”
Students are also taught about their digital footprint, and how things they post online can be accessible for years to come, whether they delete the post or not.
“When technology is used in the right way, it’s unbelievably cool, but used in the wrong way, it’s unbelievable damaging,” she said.
Certain cyberbullying is illegal
“The police are limited as to what we can do as far as having it be a crime,” Butenhoff said, of cyberbullying behavior.
The challenge with cyberbullying is that it can happen anywhere and schools can only address behavior that takes place on their properties.
Children need to realize that sharing any information electronically that’s sexual in nature – photos, emails, videos, text messages – can be considered a crime. If a person who is 18 or older is soliciting that type of information from an underage person, they can be charged under child pornography statutes.
“It really is in the hands of the community to teach our kids these types of things. A lot of things aren’t going to fall under a specific law, yet, but anything that falls into someone being fearful or being assaulted, absolutely we will prosecute on that if it meets the statute correctly,” Butenhoff said. “Since they put the law on the books for the schools, I think that’s helping a little bit.”
Educating both parents and students about appropriate online behavior should be a concerted effort. “It really is in the hands of the community to teach our kids these types of things,” she said.
Resources for parents
Here are some resources for parents and family members to help prevent cyberbullying and sexting, including tips to help identify if your child is being cyberbullied: