“Cyber-bullying” is a term many parents, teachers, health officials and media outlets buzzed about during the last few years.  And as more kids and teens take to the Web, they’re finding it easier to torment each other with the use of social networking sites or their cell phones.

How to keep it from happening or -- at the very least -- reduce the instances of it is now the question.

Kids at risk

According to a 2008 survey by Telnor, two out of every three kids said they experienced bullying via the Internet or cell phones.

The survey also shows parents are uncertain about what to do about this kind of bullying.

Research Fellow Tove Flack from the Centre for Behavioural Research (SAF) at the University of Stavanger in Norway has extensive experience in counseling work regarding bullying.

The center’s program “Zero” gives schools advice on how to prevent or detect cyber-bullying, and to also solve problems and create continuity among kids.

Flack has worked with bullying cases and conducted bullying research in schools, with a focus on “hidden bullying.”

According to Flack, cyber-bullying is usually just one part of how kids are harassed or threatened.

“This may mean that they never have any protected place. At school, they are left out or maligned and when they come home they receive insults on mobile phones and Net. Access to social media in recent years has unfortunately given us some new bullying tools," said Flack.

Lower Threshold

Flack explains the term “bullying” means experiencing harassment on a regular basis over time.

When it comes to cyber-bullying, she said it’s important to distinguish between those kids who are regularly harassed and those who have experienced only occasional harassment.

But perhaps because of the anonymous feeling the Internet provides, many kids -- especially those who would never have to courage to bully in person -- feel brave enough to be bullies when sitting at a computer.

Flack points out cyber-bullying can come in both image and text forms. Kids spread embarrassing photos of their victim via cell phone, they shoot off offensive text messages, they post disparaging things on someone’s Facebook wall, and countless other online forums.

Since cyber-bullying is so easy to hide, many parents don’t catch on until most of the damage has been done.

“For adults, it can be difficult enough to discover traditional bullying. Digital media creates new and demanding challenges. It is important to have zero tolerance for bullying via the Internet in the same way as there should be zero tolerance for all types of harassment,” said Flack.

Schools must take action

While cyber-bullying is largely an after-school event, Flack feels schools must be proactive in controlling bullying situations, both in real life and online.

The first step is to know the different forms of bullying by developing their ability to see and understand what is happening in communication and interaction between students.

“When it comes to cyber-bullying, special strategies are required," said Flack.

Flack says teaching younger kids about being polite online, or “netiquette” is a good first step, along with informing just how public the Internet is, despite the fact it feels so anonymous.

“[Kids] do not consider that what they broadcast can be tracked down and that they may be accountable for their actions online. Many do not realize that they may be prosecuted when they violate or threaten others via the Net,” said Flack.

Don’t take the phone or computer away… yet

Research Fellow Arne Olav Nygard at the Reading Centre followed high schoolers’ use of computers and cell phones and found many are on social networking sites during school hours.

Between Facebook and online gaming, Nygard said today’s teens have “an almost constant social discourse going with friends in other classes and at other schools.”

So the answer to cyber-bullying is not what many parents and teachers might assume -- to take away their child’s access to cell phones or the Internet.

“To deny students the use of technology at school or at home, is the wrong way to go," said Nygard. “We must be careful to turn bullying into a technological question. In my view, bullying is first and foremost a social problem. To remove the PC and mobile phone is the easiest solution, but it should be the last one, for that is not where the problem is.”

Nygard said the only thing parents and teachers achieve by taking away cell phones or computers is removing themselves from the real issues.

And while Nygard realizes kids will always find new ways to bully each other online, adults still need to engage in, observe and learn the logic of the digital world. By doing this, it will make it a little more difficult for kids to have secret digital lives.

Nygard suggests putting the computer in a living room or another central part of the house and staying in that room while their kids are online. “We need to set the limits for mobile and computer usage, but the technology is not something to be afraid of.”

Some advice to avoid or deal with cyber-bullying:

  1. Take bullying through social media seriously
  2. Talk with children and young people about Internet use and netiquette
  3. Get involved in the children's Internet use and become friends with your children on Facebook
  4. If harassment or threats occur, save them on the hard drive or cell phone as proof if the police need to be involved.