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Internet bullying

With the click of a key, bullies are humiliating their peers. What are schools doing to tame this behavior?

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Despite the legal difficulties of forcing a website to shut down, or even discovering the identity of someone smearing or threatening another online, kids, parents, and schools do have ways to combat cyberbullying, experts say.

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Perhaps the most important is simple communication."You can buy filters and all these things, but I think the only filter that really works is between our kids' ears," says Bill Belsey, president of Bullying.org Inc., a nonprofit group in Canada. "We need to have really strong communication with our kids, so they know if they are ever being cyberbullied to come forward."

At www.cyberbullying.ca, a website that he runs, it details steps families can take - including how to track the owners of an e-mail address - and provides software that can help filter text or track e-mails.

He and others would like to see more corporate responsibility - Internet service providers taking down threatening sites, or at a minimum ISPs and cellphone companies providing clear policies against abuse and resources for reporting harassment. In Britain, notes Stutzky, cellphone companies already offer such resources and are developing software that sends copies of text messages to parents.

But some of the most effective techniques to fight cyberbullying are the same ones that fight bullying of any kind: Teach kids to report incidents. Don't engage the bully. Talk about the issues surrounding bullying at school and at home.

"It's not new bullying, it's just a vehicle," says Nancy Mullin-Rindler, director of the Project on Teasing and Bullying at Wellesley College in Massachusetts.

"The most effective responses are principals engaging parents and teachers to try to stop this sort of behavior," she adds. "There's this myth that we can't possibly know who does it. But you just have to use good old-fashioned sleuthing to find out. Kids want credit for doing this thing."

Online bullying: a punishable offense

At Calabasas, Guidetti encourages the school's peer-support group to offer comfort and advice to victims of all sorts of bullying. John Gibbons, principal of Weston Middle School in Massachusetts, sent a listserv notice to parents this month, alerting them to instances of IM harassment among the students. He encouraged them to talk to their kids and gauge whether, in fact, they were mature enough to be using IM.

He's already heard back from some parents. "Some of them had no awareness of how much their kids were using it," he says. "For others, it prompted them to talk more about the content of the messages they send and receive."

More schools are sending home Internet use policies at the start of the school year and are including cyberbullying as an offense that can be punished.

Both parents and educators, notes Belsey, can help by showing kids the positive connections and educational benefits of the Internet.

"The promise of technology is absolutely brilliant," he says. "But we have to understand that the world our kids are growing up in is different than it was in the past. We can't condemn it, but need to give our kids enough information to cope with the world they're living in.... We need to show kids all the positive potential for teaching and learning that all this connectivity has."

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