School bullies have gone hi-tech in recent years in their efforts to ruin the social lives of their fellow students — but now technology companies are coming to the aid of those victims, trying to help parents fight off a scourge of cyberbullying as the school year gets underway.
Cyberbullying -- harassing or threatening other kids via the Internet and cell phones -- goes beyond simple teasing, because the stakes can get much higher.
Nothing illustrates that more than when in 2006, 13-year-old Megan Meier of Dardenne Prairie, Mo., killed herself after her "boyfriend" on MySpace broke up with her and said nasty things about her. It later developed that her "boyfriend" was not a real person, but someone who befriended her in order to harass her. An ex-friend’s mother faces charges in federal court as a result, and Missouri has made Internet harassment a crime.
Cyberbullies often commandeer e-mail accounts and social-networking profiles, attacking kids while pretending to be someone they trust, like a best friend. They use cell phones and the Web to spread embarrassing and cruel material, and they can harass their victims well beyond the schoolyard -- even when they're "safe" at home.
So what can parents do?
Tech companies are releasing new software products that monitor and police kids' Internet use, helping them avoid cyberbullying and letting parents know when it's occurring.
Internet monitoring software like CyberBully Alert lets kids notify parents when they're being bullied and takes a screen shot of the computer when a child clicks an alert icon.
Using these programs, parents can also block Web sites and downloads of movies, music or images. Verizon announced in June that it will begin offering similar free security tools for parents.
Internet security software maker Symantec has an online tool it will preview to some parents next month that will notify them by text message when a child attempts to access a forbidden site.
The tool, code-named Watchdog until its official release, also lets parents control who is on the child’s buddy list. Symantec offers online tips at its Norton Family Resource Center.
According to Parry Aftab, an Internet security and privacy lawyer and founder of WiredSafety.org, 85 percent of 5,000 middle-school students surveyed said they had been cyberbullied. Only 5 percent of them said they’d tell someone about it.
Up to 70 percent of the kids being cyberbullied are being harassed by their former best friends, boyfriends or girlfriends.
“Those people can do the damage they do because they know [your kids’] secrets and their passwords," Aftab said. "They can pose as them and say horrible things to everyone else."
The consequences, especially for teens who are emotionally vulnerable, can be dire.
In Missouri, a man filed a lawsuit alleging that his teenaged daughter was so traumatized after an unknown person used a phony Facebook profile to try to steal her boyfriend that she went to a mental-health clinic, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported Wednesday.
Fake profiles and anonymous screen names are used in 65 percent of cyberbully attacks, Aftab said. “You don’t know if it’s your best friend or your worst enemy [coming after you]."
Kids and teens often don’t know what cyberbullying is, assuming that if they haven’t received a death threat or had a picture of their face posted on a naked body on the Internet, they haven’t been bullied.
“A lot of the other things that are cyberbullying because kids have in their head what happened to Megan Meier, they think are not cyberbullying. ... They think that’s just part of online life,” Aftab said.
Aftab said she knows of three other teens who have committed suicide after cyberbullying attacks, and that the problem is on the rise.
Cyberbullying peaks in 4th and 7th grade, she said, and 4th graders are especially into blackmail and threatening to tell friends, parents or teachers if the victim doesn’t cooperate.
Cell phones offer bullies another route to torment their victims. “The most outrageous recent way is through theft of a cell phone for a few minutes," Aftab said. "If your kids leave their cell phone unattended or accessible in their backpack, the cyberbully will take it and send a bunch of bad text messages or reprogram it.”
Those messages, which can be hateful and misleading, will appear to come from a trusted source.
But parents can download software onto cell phones that can block calls and text messages from specific numbers if someone is using a cell phone to bully their kids. AT&T Wireless and T-Mobile, for example, allow users to block calls and text messages from certain numbers by going online.
Some software blocks calls from harassing numbers, but lets those callers think they've gotten though. They hear rings that never go to voicemail, said Linda Criddle, president of LookBothWays, a consulting firm that advises government and law enforcement agencies on online safety.
To avoid being targeted by bullies, kids can block e-mail and instant messages from them and can restrict their access to social-networking profiles. Keeping passwords private and making sure they’re not easy to guess are also important tactics for keeping bullies at bay.
“This whole password thing freaks people out ... but a good password doesn’t have to be hard to remember, just hard to guess,” Criddle said. “Friends don’t ask friends for passwords. If it wasn’t important enough for you to keep it private, why would it be important enough for them to keep it private?”
To help generate awareness and help parents learn more about ways to protect their kids online, the Department of Homeland Security designated October as National Cyber Security Awareness Month, and software maker CyberPatrol is releasing a series of Internet videos for parents.
LookBothWays offers resources for helping parents learn about and prevent cyberbullying. Online resources for parents include: GetNetWise.org, Digital Natives, SafetyClicks.com, StaySafeOnline.org and StopCyberBullying.com, where kids can even take a test to evalute their own online behavior to see if they are guilty of cyberbullying.
The best defense, Criddle said, is a strong offense.
“Limit the amount of information that you’re sharing so that it can’t be used as a weapon against you, but that doesn’t help in the frenemy situation where they were close friends and [then] not, but it does stop the random trolls.”