Imagine your child sitting in the safety of your own home, doing homework, watching TV, curled up in bed -- just being a kid. Suddenly, a message pops up on his phone: "Everyone hates you." Or maybe your daughter spots a social media post calling her vicious names along with a traumatizing -- and false -- rumor about her that's already gone viral. It's a nightmare that happens all too often as cyberbullying reaches epidemic proportions.
I testified before Congress about this insidious threat, and my show has devoted countless hours to the topic. We can't stand by as victims of cyberbullying live in fear, humiliation, depression, isolation, or even do the unthinkable by taking their own lives. There's more we can -- and must -- do, as parents, as kids, as families, and as a society.
As a boy growing up in Texas and Oklahoma, I was regaled with tales of the old Wild West where gunslingers like Black Bart and Billy the Kid freely roamed the countryside terrorizing law-abiding citizens. Decades later, we've got a new Wild Wild West, and this one has me far more concerned because I'm living in it. So are you. It's called the Wild Wild Web, and this time, the perpetrators are cyberbullies. These "keyboard stalkers" can antagonize 24 hours a day 7 days a week, reaching millions of people instantaneously. They can destroy reputations -- even lives -- anonymously. When the deed is done and they're ready to ride away, all they've got to do is log off with the push of a button ... but they can come back at any time without warning.
And in this unbridled territory there are few consequences for cyberbullies' actions and little punishment for their crimes. It is estimated that adults intervene in only 4 percent of cyberbullying cases. Peers intervene 11 percent of the time. That means that 85 percent of all cyberbullying goes on unabated.
If it sounds like I'm exaggerating or trying to be dramatic to make a point, I'm not. I am convinced that we are facing a serious crisis. According to one study, 43 percent of teens say they have been bullied online. Another reports that 88 percent of social media-using teens have witnessed others being mean or cruel. Studies show that because of the shame and embarrassment kids feel from cyberbullying, they often remain silent, becoming even more isolated and humiliated. Eventually, for some kids the pain becomes unbearable, which is why cyberbullying victims are 1.9 times more likely to attempt suicide than those who have not endured such bullying, according to the Cyberbullying Research Center.
Every generation, of course, has had its bullies. But when I grew up, and even when my two boys were young, insults were scrawled on a bathroom wall, etched on a desk, or snickered behind your back. The schoolyard bully actually had to look you in the eye if he wanted to start up with you. Usually, there were teachers or administrators not too far away or other kids within shouting distance. In some cases, children who were antagonized would transfer schools to start fresh -- and they actually could. No longer. Now, because of the convenience, anonymity and ubiquity of technology, bullies can strike anywhere, anytime, with the victim just where the bully wants: in isolation. No matter where you go, it's as if a bully is living with you, and there's nowhere to hide. Countless children are haunted day and night, with consequences that are immediate, widespread, indelible, and most of all, devastating.
Parents: You must get involved in your kids' high-tech lives. If you are not computer or smart phone literate, it's time to learn. It's your job to know what your kids are up to on their phones, on social media sites, and throughout the Internet. Start talking to your child about what goes on in his online life every day, know who his "friends" are, and insist on being one of them or having another trusted adult do so. Ask her if she's been ridiculed, intimidated or humiliated online; assure her you want to hear about it and try to help should that ever happen. Find out if she has witnessed cyberbullying, and make sure she understands that being a bystander makes her part of the problem.
On the flip side, would you know if your child were an online bully? Could he, even just once, have spread a malicious rumor? Could he have said something -- even in jest -- that has the capacity to spread like wildfire and bring someone down? Have a pointed conversation about the stakes of Internet behavior, including possible legal repercussions that could haunt your kids for the rest of their lives. And ask yourself: Am I modeling appropriate behavior both online and offline?
Young people have the knowledge -- but not the wisdom -- to use the power of the Internet. It's our job to start bridging that gap for them. The times they are a-changing, as they say, so we've got to change too, by educating ourselves, being vigilant as parents and friends, and creating a system of accountability and consequences. And we've got to give young people the tools that will help empower them and not let bullies take away their self-esteem, or even their lives. The most important relationship any of us will ever have is with ourselves; let's teach kids how to be their own best friend.