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Cyberbullying Workshop Highlights Prevalent Issues

North Shore LIJ Doctor Addresses ‘New Age’ Bully Tactic

Facebook, Twitter, MySpace and Formspring. Those are just a few of the sites that have seen the brunt of it. Let’s not forget about AOL Instant Messenger, AOL chat rooms and forum sites.

There is a growing epidemic of emotional harm being caused by cyberbullying. So what’s being done about it?

The Nassau County Department of Mental Health, Chemical Dependency and Developmental Disabilities Services held a workshop on, “Cyberbullying in the Computer Age” last week. The workshop was designed to help behavioral health workers identify and understand the growing phenomenon of cyberbullying, and was co-sponsored by the Mental Health Association of Nassau County.

The ever-growing issue of cyberbullying has hit children at all age levels. Bullying is not designated for the classroom, lunchroom or playground anymore. It reaches into the living room, bedroom and kitchen of bullied children.

Severe cases of cyberbullying have occurred in school districts across Long Island, some of which have resulted in death-threats, fights and suicide.

“We’ve heard terrible stories from kids who were bullied online,” one Long Island school administrator said. “Parents have heard their children contemplate suicide and horrible, horrible things when it comes to being cyberbullied, but got them help. It’s sad and [New York] state should do something about it.”

According to Dr. Victor Fonari, director of the Division of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at North Shore University Hospital, the definition of bullying over the last ten years has changed drastically.

Fonari was a professor at the NYU School of Medicine and has been appointed to the United States Department’s National Crisis Response Team. He will be a professor of psychiatry at the Hofstra University School of Medicine in July 2011.

Fonari said bullying used to be confined to aggressive behavior of individuals toward others such as verbal threats, bodily injury, sexual harassment and emotional and psychological disruption.

However, now bullying has reached into the “information superhighway” and attacks people and children’s psyche more than ever. The harm that comes to a young child’s mind can shape how they develop as an individual.

“I think the full extent of cyberbullying will be better understood as our society grows in this texting age,” he said. “Kids are tormented by emails, Facebook posts, MySpace posts and it’s very upsetting.”

Fonari stated that early bully prevention programs were aimed at the education of individuals through their respective school but often proved unsuccessful because of lack of family and community involvement. Recent intervention systems encompass the community, the family and the school to give everyone a better understanding of what’s going on.

“We’re learning as we’re going,” Fonari iterated. “Parents and their kids need to talk to each other and be open about what’s going on in their lives at school and on the computer. If you hold back, you’re only hurting each other.”

In terms of cyberbullying, Fonari feels the avenues for bullies are much broader and wide reaching on the Internet than in the schools. He called it “social terror by technology.” “It can be done anywhere,” he stated. “And it can be planned out. To an extent, on the playground a bully can plan things out but has to adapt to the elements. On the computer, he/she can sit and map out there insults and attacks. It’s dangerous.”

Dr. Fonari cited relational aggression (RA) as a springboard for what cyberbullying is today. Fornari said RA has been around for some time. It’s referred to covert aggression, or covert bullying and, “is considered to be a standard form of bullying.”

“It is defined as a type of aggression in which harm is caused through damage to relationships or social status within a group and can include lies, gossip, betrayal, solitude, exclusion, humiliation and other forms of aggression,” Fornari said.

Sounds like cyberbullying, doesn’t it? Schools are having trouble with cyberbullying because it’s not something they can regulate. The biggest issue in terms of school regulation is that it’s out of their hands once the child leaves school. If it occurs in school, it’s something the schools can deal with.

“It’s done on the cellphone,” Fonari stated. “If it’s done in the evening or the weekend, do they [school personnel] have the right to intervene? I say the bully is the person with the problem.”

Effective interventions have yet to be determined since the Internet is a growing, everyday changing technology. Schools can only go so far in regulating a forum that is so far-reaching. “I think the reality [is that cyberbulliying is] becoming so common and it’s happening in all schools,” Fonari said, “Its not just public schools, it’s not just parochial or private schools. It’s everywhere.”

Mineola School District Superintendent Michael Nagler spoke to Anton Community Newspapers and stated his view on cyberbullying and what the school district has done to regulate the problem while kids are in school. He said that it’s something that everyone has to deal with and it doesn’t seem like it’s going to disappear anytime soon.

“For students in a educational setting, all students are required to have signed our Acceptable Use Policy,” Nagler said. “The board of education has a policy on how our students can use our technology equipment. Cyberbullying was addressed in that policy.”

Dr. Nagler said that the school has unofficially dealt with cyberbullying cases because like most situations, they occur while the students are at home. “It has spilled over into the school and that’s when we can step in like instant messaging or Facebook and such,” he said. “Oftentimes parents would approach school administration to deal with the problem.”

Nagler said the Acceptable Use Policy has worked very well and that if students break the policy, they are banned from using the technology. “They’d be suspended from privileges of technological use,” he said.

Dr. Nagler concluded that if the school is confident it won’t happen again, the school would step in and deal with the problem. He also iterated that depending on the nature of the bullying, “we may just turn it over to the police.”