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March 31, 2010

Software Can Help Parents Combat Cyber-bullying

By Alice Straight, TMCnet Web Editor


Citing bullying, cyber-bullying and other crimes, prosecutors Monday charged nine teens who they allege pushed a 15-year-old Massachusetts girl so far that she hanged herself two months ago.

According to law enforcement officials, Phoebe Prince was threatened and harassed almost from her first day at South Hadley High School.

Prince, who came to the school from Ireland, was ostracized for having a brief relationship with a popular boy, hanged herself in January — after a day that the district attorney described as “torturous” and that included being hounded with slurs and pelted with a beverage container as she walked home from school.

The teens face charges for what a prosecutor called 'unrelenting' bullying, including two teen boys charged with statutory rape and a clique of girls charged with stalking, criminal harassment and violating Prince's civil rights.

The bullying and cyber-bullying endured by Prince is becoming more and more common.

A February study by the Cyberbullying Research Center shows that 20 percent of the 4,000 12 to 18 year olds in the sample reported being cyber bullied during their lives. When asked the previous 30 days, 13.7 percent reported being the recipient of mean or hurtful comments and 12.9 percent said they had rumors spread online about themselves. Seventeen percent of the sample reported being cyber-bullied in one or more of the nine types reported, two or more times over the course of the previous 30 days.

The study also shows that cell phones continue to be the most popular technology utilized by teens with almost 83 percent of those in the study report having used one at least weekly.

And cell phones, especially smart phones, pose a problem for parents seeking to monitor their child’s activities.  A home computer can have a program such as Net Nanny installed, which lets parents track their child’s usage. Traditional parental controls for cell phones have primarily focused on filters for what multimedia content, usage controls to limit the number of calls and texts a phone can receive or disable the phone at certain times, and location and monitoring controls.

SMobile Systems, recently unveiled the latest version of its Parental Controls and Monitoring service, which now includes GPS tracking and picture monitoring and takes traditional phone monitoring a step further.

The Parental Controls Dashboard from SMobile Systems (News - Alert) is a Web-based software, which enables parents to define and set keyword alerts, view the people contacting their child, utilize remote location services, and monitor pictures, images and messages sent to and from their child’s phone.

“Cell phones have become powerful mobile computing devices, complete with digital cameras and video recorders.  As smartphone prices continue to fall, they have become a ‘must have’ for kids and teens,” said Neil Book, CEO of SMobile Systems.  “There’s a perception out there that if we put parental control software on our desktops at home, we’re keeping our kids safe from cyber threats.  But the reality is, our children are walking around with handheld computers in their pockets that are connected to the internet 24 hours a day. Our goal in developing the Parental Controls Dashboard is to give parents a similar set of tools to monitor their kids’ mobile activities as they have with programs like NetNanny and other Internet solutions for monitoring their personal computers.”

The Massachusetts Legislature cited Prince's death and the apparent suicide of 11-year-old Carl Walker-Hoover of Springfield last year when members passed anti-bullying legislation earlier this month.

The Massachusetts cases aren't the first time cyber-bullying has ended in death.

In 2006, 13-year-old Megan Meier killed herself after being harassed on MySpace (News - Alert) by a neighbor's mother, posing as a 16-year-old teenage boy.

The death of the Missouri teen spawned legislative efforts, the Megan Meier Cyberbullying Prevention Act, which would amends the federal code to impose criminal penalties on anyone who transmits in interstate or foreign commerce a communication intended to coerce, intimidate, harass, or cause substantial emotional distress to another person, using electronic means to support severe, repeated, and hostile behavior. The bill has been in subcommittees since its April 2009 introduction.

Alice Straight is a TMCnet editor. To read more of her articles, please visit her columnist page.

Edited by Alice Straight

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