Of all the dangers the world, one of the biggest threats to your children is in the supposed safety of your own home. It's behind the screen, lurking behind a keyboard -- cyber bullying.

Thirty eight states now have laws related to cyber bullying, from giving offenders fines to sending them to prison. Last week, Michigan adopted a new cyber bullying law that adds 93 days of jail time and a $500 fine to punishment for offenders.

In light of Public Health Month this April, Dr. Christine Murray -- Guilford County Healthy Relationships director -- joined the Good Morning Show to de-code this ever-changing health risk.

What constitutes cyber bullying?

  • The US Department of Health and Human Services defines bullying as follows: "Bullying is unwanted, aggressive behavior among school aged children that involved a real or perceived power imbalance. The behavior is repeated, or has the potential to be repeated, over time."
  • Some key aspects of bullying from this definition:
    • It is UNWANTED and AGGRESSIVE: This is not "play" or any sort of play fighting. It is not consensual. The bully is forcing the behavior on the other student.
    • There is a POWER IMBALANCE: The student doing the bullying either has some sort of power or greater status (e.g., being more popular), or they are using the bullying behaviors to exert power and control over their target.
    • It involves a PATTERN or a possible pattern that could develop over time. With bullying, if it's not stopped, it could evolve into a pattern over time.
  • Cyber bullying: Uses any form of technology to carry out the bullying behavior. This could include social media, texting, phones, computers, apps, GPS, etc.

How has it become more complex over the years?

Cyber bullying has become more complex as technology has become more complex!

Although technology can offer many wonderful ways for people to access information and stay connected with others, there are also potential abuses when they're in the wrong hands.

Another way it's become more complex is because children are becoming more technologically aware at younger ages. Oftentimes, children and teenagers are more technologically skilled than their parents, so parents and other adults often aren't aware of the full scope of potential risks faced by their children.

How can parents be more aware about what might be going on?

Parents can look for signs that a child may be being bullied. Some things to look for include the following:

  • Changes in their mood or behavior
  • Withdrawing from usual activities or social connections
  • Academic or behavioral changes in school
  • Lower self-esteem
  • Sleep difficulties

If you suspect your child is being bullied:

  • Let your child know of your concerns in a non-threatening way
  • If they don't disclose, speak to other adults and ask them to keep an eye on the situation
  • Let your child know you are there to help them figure out how best to handle the situation
  • Take steps to promote your child's safety
  • Seek professional support, as appropriate (e.g., school personnel, a professional counselor)

To be proactive:

  • Learn about the technology platforms your child is using
  • Talk with them about safety risks, and help educate them about safety when using technology
  • Help make them aware of the risks in a developmentally-appropriate way

What if your child IS the cyber bully?

  • Understand that most children who perpetrate bullying do so because they are hurting or feeling dis-empowered in some way Your main goals are (1) to hold them accountable for stopping the bullying behavior and (2) to offer them support to address their own hurts
  • Accountability: Take a clear stance that bullying is not okay; determine appropriate consequences (e.g., restricted access to technology)
  • Offering support: Connect them with resources (e.g., a counselor); Help them build their self-esteem and positive social connections

Guidance for parents to address this issue proactively:

  • Be intentional about being a role model for kindness for your children
  • Start conversations about difficult topics like bullying before it occurs
  • Help your children develop empathy for others; Help them learn to consider how their behaviors impact other people
  • As soon as your child starts using a new technology, talk with them about how to do so safely. As parents, if you don't know much about a technology platform your child is using, take time to familiarize yourself with it so you can offer guidance to your child.