If you think cyberbullying isn’t a problem, just ask the parents of Alexis Pilkington. Or Megan Meier. Or Phoebe Prince. Or any parents whose children’s names now appear on the growing list of teens and preteens who have committed suicide in the wake of prolonged and brutal cyberbullying. 

Like other parents who have watched their children endure harassing emails, cruel epithets posted on MySpace or rumors spread via Facebook, they’ll tell you that cyberbullying isn’t just a watered-down version of traditional bullying, but rather a growing threat that parents need to take seriously.

Difficult to track 

Just how widespread of a threat it is can be difficult to quantify, although thus far Internet-based harassment has already contributed to two teen suicides this year.

“Kids hide it and downplay it,” said Dr. Meg Meeker, pediatrician and author of “Boys Should Be Boys: 7 Secrets to Raising Healthy Sons” (Ballantine, $15). “It’s embarrassing, and many worry that if their parents get involved it will only get worse. So we don’t have good numbers. But based on anecdotal evidence, it’s on the rise.” 

In some ways, cyberbullying is no different from traditional teasing and taunting. 

Joseph White, director of Family Life and Family Counseling for the Diocese of Austin, Texas, said the motivation behind cyberbullying is the same as that of face-to-face bullying. 

“Bullying is usually about power and control,” he said. “It seems to have its roots in kids’ desire to feel normal. If they can point out someone else’s weakness, it takes the focus off them.” 

Which is why both forms of bullying occur most frequently in middle school, junior high and early high school, when, as White said, young people typically feel the most self-conscious. 

The victims of both forms of bullying also have much in common. Most, said White, are different from their peers in some visible way. But that doesn’t necessarily mean physical appearance. Although some suffer harassment for being more or less attractive than their peers, the visible difference is just as often a gift or talent, such as intelligence, musical ability or even athletic skills. 

“When kids distinguish themselves, others become insecure because of how much they’re achieving,” he said. 

Meeker additionally noted that most victims of bullying tend to be “quieter, more sensitive and compliant.”

Ramping up humiliation 

Because victims of cyberbullying don’t always bear the physical traces that face-to-face bullying can leave, it can be tempting to dismiss online harassment as a lesser evil.  

That would be a mistake, said Meeker. She sees cyberbullying as the greater of two evils, at least in part because of the level of vitriol typically present in online exchanges. 

“Bullies feel much less inhibited online,” she said. “The level of meanness gets ramped up a couple notches when they can’t see their victim’s face.” 

The anonymity afforded by the Internet only increases the level of nastiness, as does the absence of parents and teachers from most online forums. 

To make matters worse, news of whatever the cyberbullies say or do spreads like lightning.  

“If a child bullies another child in school, only a few see what happens,” said Meeker. “But online, potentially thousands can witness the act, which makes it all the more humiliating.” 

Laptops and cell phones now keep students connected to the Internet and each other 24 hours a day, seven days a week, which means cyberbullying often continues around the clock. 

The fact that technology is the medium for bullying complicates matters even further.  

“Social media is the medium for teen relationships,” said Franciscan University of Steubenville communication arts professor Eugene Gan. “Not only is it the primary way they communicate with one another, but it shapes how they view themselves. When they lose their standing online, that carries a lot of weight.” 

For most teens, the damage won’t lead to suicide. But it can still cause plenty of harm. 

“Cyberbullying can be a major trigger for depression,” said Meeker. “It damages their self-esteem and can alter their friendships. Even when the rumors or insults aren’t true — and usually they aren’t — that doesn’t stop friends from believing them and distancing themselves.” 

Parents’ damage control

If parents know the bullying is taking place, both Meeker and White advise against confronting the bully or talking to students’ teachers about it in the presence of the children. 

What they do recommend is acting swiftly and comprehensively, calmly talking to school authorities and the bully’s parents and asking for their help in stopping the behavior.  

If that doesn’t work, Meeker said, they should consider taking their children out of the forum where the bullying occurs — whether that is a social-networking site in particular, the Internet in general, or even school. 

Switching schools, however, is a last resort. Before it comes to that point, Meeker stressed the importance of teaching children to stand up to bullies by helping them develop the confidence to tell the bully they’re not going to tolerate the harassment anymore. 

“One of the worst things a victim can do is fade into the woodwork,” she said. 

It’s also important that parents take seriously any accusations of bullying made against their child, White said. 

To prevent children from being the victim or perpetrator of cyberbullying, Gan advises parents to more actively monitor their children’s technology use — teaching them the importance of using technology to promote, not demean, human dignity, and encouraging them to not rely on technology as their primary means of communication with peers.

White and Meeker also urge parents to think twice before allowing their children to use social-networking sites, and to do so only with the understanding that they will have access to the site and the right to shut it down if the privilege is abused. 

“Even very good kids can do some really ugly things on impulse,” White said. “Healthy supervision is essential to helping children make wise choices.” 

Emily Stimpson is an OSV contributing editor.

Parental tips (sidebar)

Most children and teens won’t come to their parents if they’re being harassed online. Already embarrassed, they fear their parents will be disappointed in them or think less of them. They also worry their parents will make the situation worse. So, how can parents know if their child is in trouble? Child psychology experts Dr. Meg Meeker and Joseph White advise parents to do the following: 

Has their child become more sullen? Does he avoid eye contact and look defeated? Is she increasingly making negative remarks about herself? Does he complain about going to school? Has she started using headaches or stomachaches as an excuse to get out of school? Are his grades changing? Is she losing interests in favorite activities? 

Start with the direct approach. Ask if someone is bullying them and where it takes place. 

If the direct approach doesn’t work, ask them if they have friends who are bullied or if there is any bullying at school. Just by removing the questions one degree, you’re likely to get a better picture of what’s taking place in their life.