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Throwing the book at cyberbullies

New book explores the trend in child intimidation via the Internet and cell phones. Can parents get even with cyberbullies? What are they already doing wrong?

The school bully isn't necessarily that oversized, physically intimidating kid anymore.

Humiliation by words has become just as popular--if not more so--as children's social lives have migrated online.

Patricia Agatston, a licensed professional counselor and consultant on the Olweus Bullying Prevention Program; Robin Kowalski, professor of psychology at Clemson University; and Sue Limber, director of the Center on Youth Participation and Human Rights at Clemson University, have written a book on the topic.

Cyber Bullying: Bullying in the Digital Age comes out Nov. 14.

The authors of Cyber Bullying: Bullying in the Digital Age, which comes out November 14, interviewed approximately 150 middle and high school students during the spring and fall of 2006. Aside from their own first-hand research, the book includes a plethora of statistics from leading academic researchers covering cyberbullying and real-life bullying around the world.

For example, the most popular medium for cyberbullying in the U.S. and Canada is the Internet, but in the U.K. and Australia it's the cell phone.

The authors also determined that unlike real-life bullying, there is often no witness or physical scar to alert parents or teachers to a cyberbullying situation.

But the biggest problem with cyberbullying is that children will not report it. They try to deal with it themselves for fear of being cut off. Many times parents will overreact and punish the victim by forbidding them to continue using things like instant messaging, blogs, or a social network, according to Agatston.

If parents want their children to come to them, then they need to discuss expectations ahead of time and let their children know they're not going to take away online privileges if something goes wrong, she said.

Agatston recommends parents encourage their children to start exploring their online identities in middle school so they can learn the proper way to behave and gain their parents trust as they get older.

"Instead of saying, 'No you can't have a social networking life,' let them have one as long as they follow some ground rules, such as sharing their password. Later, if you as a parent can't get in, then say 'You've violated your agreement,' and take away rights temporarily," said Agatston.

One positive thing about cyberbullying compared to the usual schoolyard variety is that parents, educators, and counselors have better luck getting through to the parents of bullies.

Usually the parents of bullies have a "kids will be kids" response. If there is evidence available, seeing a record of the actual words their child used makes it harder for parents to stay in denial about their child's bad behavior, said Agatston.

And while educators often like to say that what doesn't happen within their realm is not their concern, cyberbullying can really affect the school day. The school community could be a good place for parents to gather and learn how to supervise their children's online lives, said Agatston.

Children will be able to get around their parents' boundaries technologically, if the parents don't understand the tech. By the time they get to high school, many children know how to get around common filtering and blocking software, according to Cyber Bullying

So where do middle and high school students go online to socialize these days? Agatston says it's constantly changing. When she started her research it was Xanga, then the trend seemed to move to MySpace and now it's all about Facebook.

"You are trying to catch moving targets sometimes, but the dynamics are all the same, it's just which piece of technology happens to be popular at the time," she said.