Parents challenged by cyberbullying

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Cyberbullying. The New York Times has a whole series of long articles about it. Evidently it is a problem we can’t ignore.

In the precocious, narcissistic world of today's cellphone-toting young teens it is all too easy for them to throw off inhibitions and indulge in the fad of nastiness. Because that is what bullying talk on Facebook pages and in text messages has become -- a juvenile fad, albeit an ugly and dangerous one. Kids of 12, 13 and 14 post cruel taunts and spread gossip and lies far and wide about erstwhile friends as well as “enemies”. They may even forge the identity of a selected victim online to turn him or her into an unwitting cyber bully.

That is what happened to one ninth grade boy, son of a single (working) mother, in the Times story. The boy wasn't even on Facebook when a page appeared in his name and taunts about other kids appeared there. He was challenged and ostracised at school as a result. And his mom could not get anywhere with tracing the forgers -- not with the school, not with Facebook -- until she called in the police, who, with the cooperation of FB and the internet service provider, did trace the offenders. They were three boys known to the victim; one of them had been a friend since pre-school.

But what happened next was in some ways worse.

Although the police did not release the boys’ names because they are juveniles, word seeped through town. In the middle of the night, Marie received anonymous calls. “They told me my son should just suck it up,” she recalled. “They said he would be a mama’s boy. They would rant and then they would hang up.”

After the police arrested the boys who usurped D.C.’s identity, the parents wrote Marie awkward apology letters. Only one mother phoned, in tears.

Parents, it seems, often turn defensive: it’s “My kid, right or wrong.”

No matter how parents see their children, learning of the cruelties they may perpetrate is jarring and can feel like an indictment of their child-rearing.

The law in this case imposed a punishment that fitted the crime:

Last spring, the Essex County, Mass., district attorney’s office sent the three boys who forged D.C.’s Facebook identity to a juvenile diversion program for first-time nonviolent offenders.

If the boys adhere to conditions for a year, they will not be prosecuted. According to a spokesman, those conditions include: a five-page paper on cyberbullying; letters of apology to D.C. and everyone they insulted in his name on Facebook; attending two Internet safety presentations; community service; no access to the Internet except to complete schoolwork. Their computers must be in a public family space, not the bedroom.

Marie, who reports that D.C. has a new circle of friends and good grades, is reasonably satisfied with the sentencing conditions.

Of course, its effectiveness comes down to the parents, and how much they have learned from the episode:

But compliance is another matter. She believes that at least one boy is already back on Facebook.

Overburdened school administrators and, increasingly, police officers who unravel juvenile cybercrimes, say it is almost impossible for them to monitor regulations imposed on teenagers.

As with the boys who impersonated D.C. online, a district attorney’s spokeswoman said, “That monitoring is up to the parents.”

There are a lot of other examples and information about dealing with cyberbullying in the NYT series. It is an education, really.

MORE ON THESE TOPICS | cyberbullying, social networking, teenagers

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Family Edge looks at news and trends affecting the family in the light of human dignity. Our focus is the inspiring, creative, humorous, annoying, ridiculous, and dangerous ideas in the evening news. Send tips and brainwaves to the editor, Tamara Rajakariar, at tamara.rajakariar@

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