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Keep kids safe from cyberbullies

By William J. Bennett, CNN Contributor
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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • William Bennett: Latest teen cyberbullying is "sextortion," or blackmail over photos
  • Cell phones used the most in bullying, he says, and kids send thousands of texts a month
  • Child who is cyberbullied by other kids suffers immeasurable damage, he writes
  • Parents can take charge, Bennett says, using tools and limiting texting and e-mailing
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Editor's note: CNN contributor William J. Bennett is the Washington fellow of the Claremont Institute. He was U.S. secretary of education from 1985 to 1988 and was director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy under President George H.W. Bush.

(CNN) -- Cyberbullying is a growing national concern, with roughly 75 percent of teenagers using cell phones, the most common instrument of harassment. The U.S. education secretary has been talking about it, and the Department of Justice held a cyberbullying summit.

But local communities increasingly are addressing the problem. Indeed, three separate pieces of legislation are being introduced in the Arizona legislature to address the growing problem. And Thursday night, a nonprofit I'm involved in, StandAgainstBullying.org, will be hosting an open and free event in Phoenix to address the very serious issue of cyberbullying.

I will be there, along with concerned parents, academics, school administrators and other state officials, including the attorney general, the chief of police, the state superintendent of education and Pinal County Sheriff Paul Babeu.

Every cable network, every news channel and almost every newspaper has reported on the issue. And just as we were all beginning to wrap our collective minds around the problem, another facet of it cropped up: sextortion, where teens who send graphic images of themselves to friends are being threatened --blackmailed -- by third parties, who capture those images to send even more and more images.

Most of these stories involve cell phone use and abuse. And it's easier and easier to see how such abuse can happen: The average teenager with a cell phone sends more than 3,000 texts a month.

Cyberbullying and sexting from child to child can lead to, and has led to, terrible consequences, even after just one poor choice of cell phone use. A child victim of cyberbullying by his or her cohorts at school or elsewhere can suffer immeasurable damage, from depression and anxiety to poor academic performance. And, in some cases, worse.

A child victim of sexting can have his or her whole life ruined. The threats, the problems, are not so remote as to think "it cannot happen to my child." More than 30 percent of children who are online have experienced some form of online harassment -- and some report even higher percentages.

Do parents have to give up trying to keep their children safe in the digital age? No. Never. Not in any age can a parent give up. It has been argued that the digital age our children live in is the Wild West of the 21st century. But parents can never surrender to such a dystopia -- and they do not have to.

It must be said that many children's online and technological experiences are perfectly fine. The problem is those e-mail and texts that are not perfectly fine, and even the most innocent of children can fall victim to being harassed by them. Thus, parenting has just gotten harder; necessarily so.

But tools are to combat these are available to parents. (I, in full disclosure, am a shareholder and senior adviser to a company, Safe Communications Inc., that produces a set of products for this. There are other products as well.) Such tools can be used to set times when a child can and cannot text and e-mail -- say, no texting between 8 a.m. and 4 p.m. weekdays, none between 6 and 7 p.m. weeknights and never after curfew or "lights out." And more, such a tool can actually stop cyberbullying and sexting e-mails and texts; it can block them.

This is the kind of tool that can help tame the spheres our children live and communicate in, can keep them safe and can give parents peace of mind as they still see the import of their children having cell phones and as children still desire them.

But more important than any of this, parents and children need to talk more with each other. Our strongest suggestion is that before any cell phone purchase for a child is made, a serious conversation needs to take place between the parent and child.

Parents: Go to the Internet and google the phrases "cyberbullying" and "sexting." Familiarize yourself with what the dangers can be. And then discuss those dangers with your child. Talk about the rules for using the cell phone. The younger the child, the more important it can be to have rules, such as whom he or she is permitted to text and e-mail.

Discuss the logical consequences of inappropriate use of the cell phone. And look into the kind of Web-based programs we affiliate with, the kind that can prevent noxious and dangerous messages from being received and sent.

Communication, especially digital communication, is no longer what it used to be, and too many parents simply have no idea how much there is and how bad it can be -- until it is too late. But we can prevent "too late" from taking place.

The technology is available for all of us (parents, teachers, coaches, administrators and other responsible adults) to do our part to make sure our children's messaging and communication is safe, healthy and up to the standards we want for them -- the standards they deserve for their childhood to remain safe, secure and healthy.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of William Bennett.