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President Obama and and First Lady Michelle Obama teamed up in a conference on Thursday to address cyberbullying, a growing problem in today's generation of children. Cyberbullying affects half of all American teenagers, according to the National Crime Prevention Council. Additional figures from the Cyberbullying Research Center indicate that it is responsible for suicidal thoughts in 20 percent of middle school-aged children. All it takes is a quick internet search to uncover the names and faces of children who have committed suicide after becoming victims of cyberbullying: Alexis Pilkington, 17, Ryan Halligan, 13, Tyler Clementi, 18 -- and these are only a tiny fraction of the kids who have suffered from online harassment. I know that as parents, it's hard for us to understand this aspect of our kids' lives. We didn't grow up with the internet or cell phones or iPads, and all these other gadgets our kids spend hours on every day. We weren't constantly connected to our social circles through Facebook or Twitter or instant messaging. But our kids are. They're constantly getting feedback from their friends (and those who aren't so friendly) on everything they do. While there's some accountability on Facebook and Twitter, there are also websites like Forumspring allow people to speak to -- and all too often, attack -- each other anonymously. How do you know if your child is being cyberbullied? That can be tough. Cyberbullying happens silently, in places you may not be able to access -- unless your child has given you their passwords to the social networking sites they use. But barring this admittedly unlikely situation, there are other ways to tell. Observe your child. Are they moody and withdrawn, moreso than a typical bout of the teenage blues would explain? Are they constantly monitoring their Facebook or Twitter? It may be that there's something they're specifically monitoring for, such as a cruel or taunting comment. And then there's an even more effective method: Ask them. Yes, kids can be secretive. Yes, they can be moody too. But it's better that they know that somebody's in their corner, willing to take action against the people who are tormenting them. Once you know your child is being cyberbullied there are specific actions you can take. I've outlined a few of them below: 1. Be supportive. Don't be passive. This isn't a case of sticks and stones and telling your child to "get a thicker skin." In cyberbullying, children are especially vulnerable because its following them everywhere -- including places where they should feel safe, like their homes. The attacks can also be even more vicious than everyday schoolyard taunts because people tend to feel less responsible for their actions on the internet. 2. If the attacks escalate, your response should as well. Notify the school. Ask a teacher or counselor to observe if there is a person or group bullying your child in the classroom. These may be the same people who are bullying your child online. 3. Consider counseling. Cyberbullying can have serious consequences. Kids have committed suicide over what people have said to them online. When depression becomes this severe, sometimes the most responsible thing is to admit that you need help. 4. Keep a record. Print out all instances of cyberbullying. There may come a time when the bullying escalates to a point where police intervention is necessary (such as when personal information is posted online, or the bullies are threatening physical harm). These printouts, along with electronic evidence, can be used by police to find the cyberbully offline. If you're uncertain as to whether or not bullying is escalating, remember: it's always better to be safe than sorry. Too many kids have fallen victim to cyberbullying already -- and for some, it cost them their lives. If you suspect your child is being cyberbullied, take action now. For more information, visit http://www.stopcyberbullying.org/.
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