When Tina Meier agreed to let her 13-year-old daughter Megan open a MySpace account three years ago, she thought she was being a responsible parent. Megan was allowed to use the account only while being supervised by an adult. Her parents knew the password, but Megan didn't, which meant that she couldn't log into the account on her own. All new friends had to be approved by a parent.
Tragedy struck several weeks later. After being teased on MySpace by friends and a boy she met online, Megan hanged herself in her bedroom closet. She died the next day. Her parents later learned that the boy she met online who teased her so badly, "Josh Evans," was actually created by a parent living down the street.
"It's a parent's worst nightmare," said Meier, who recently spoke about cyber-bullying and Internet safety with parents and students at Jim Thorpe Area High School. She now devotes her time to raising awareness about bullying and cyber-bullying through the Megan Meier Foundation, a nonprofit organization.
"This is something that is not going to go away," she said to the crowd. "I really am grateful that you are here today."
Meier explained that Megan endured the typical teasing and bullying that comes with grade school and middle school. Her parents moved her to a smaller private school, hoping that a change of pace would improve the situation. It did Megan made new friends and seemed happy.
"I thought we had gotten through this hurdle," said Meier. "Megan had changed."
But while Megan no longer faced teasing in school, cyber-bullying can take place outside of school walls. It can also create a vicious cycle of teasing and harassment, where a teen cannot escape bullying in school or at home.
Fortunately, there are steps that parents and teenagers can take to prevent cyber-bullying and break the cycle of harassment. Meier shared these tips with parents, encouraging them to address this problem and help to spread awareness.
• Know that cyber-bullying is a serious problem, as is sexting, or sending sexual texts or photos. Adults might think it is silly for teenagers to get upset over a text message that says they are fat or ugly but when that text is sent to every student in the school, it can have a dramatic impact on the teen's self-esteem, says Meier. Nearly half of all teenagers have been cyber-bullied in some way. Most will not tell a parent when it is happening.
More than half of teen girls have sent a sexual or nude picture to a friend or boyfriend. These photos are easily distributed through texting, e-mail and social networking. Once photographs appear online, it will never disappear. High school students who are 18 can be arrested for child pornography if they are caught with a picture of an underage classmate.
• Keep computers and sources of technology in a public space in the home, such as the kitchen or den. Teenagers should not be guaranteed privacy while they are online, she added.
"You have no clue what is going on," said Meier. Her younger daughter, now 13, doesn't like that her mom checks her text messages and Facebook accounts but Meier doesn't care. "It's my house. I want to know what is going on."
Set rules for Internet and cell phone use. These rules may change as the child matures, but teenagers should never share account passwords.
• Understand the language. You may not care about Facebook friends or Twitter tweets, but your child probably does.
"It is your job to understand what these things are," said Meier. If your child attempts to tell you about the rumor that was cut and pasted into MySpace and sent through IM, you need to understand their language so that you can help them. "If you don't understand them, it is a waste of their time, and they will get frustrated."
• Knowing the "language" of technology can also help you decipher messages your child is sending. "ROTFL" (rolling on the floor laughing) is probably innocent fun. "CD9," "Code 9," and "PAW" or "PAL" (parents are watching/listening) tells friends that a parent is in the room. Netlingo.com is a good source for the most common Internet acronyms and codes.
• Keep lines of communication open and encourage frequent, honest talks. Never threaten your child if they tell you about a problem with cyber-bullying.
"If your child does come to you, and you threaten to take away their cell phone or Internet, that is a surefire way to make sure they never come to you again," she said.
While cyber-bullying is only possible if teens have access to technology, cell phones and computers have become an irreplaceable part of teenage life and socialization. Never punish a child for being honest, but do help to find a solution to the problem.
• Stop cyber-bullying by blocking people or sites that cause problems. Tell your child that if she is being bullied on MySpace, they should stop checking their account. If they need a social outlet, try moving to Facebook or IM. Ongoing cases of bullying and harassment should be printed in their original format, said Meier.
"Before you delete all that stuff, you have to print it out," she said. If bullying ever becomes a large enough problem to contact the police, you will need proof that the harassment has been ongoing.
• Tell your child that cyber-bullying on their part will not be tolerated.
"We have to take accountability when it is our own child who is doing it," said Meier. Explain that cyber-bullying is just as serious as regular bullying, and will have the same consequences. It is never acceptable to tease or bully a friend or classmate online.