Child’s play has gone viral, as even five- and six-year-olds are getting on the cyberbullying bandwagon, sending out hurtful messages without so much as a second thought and causing some of our children to view suicide as their only way out of the pain inflicted on them via electronic media.

The highly publicized deaths of Tyler Clementi and Phoebe Prince leave no doubt; no wonder November is National Anti-Bullying Month.

A short time ago in Montgomery County, Pennsylvania, more than 100 Souderton Area High School students signed up in September for National Kick a Freshman Day; fortunately that effort was thwarted by officials.

Just recently, however,17-year-old Jesse Buchsbaum hanged himself in his Gilbertsville, Pennsylvania home, most likely a victim of bullying.

As John Halligan will tell you, the toll is great. Because his son Ryan killed himself after being bullied in school and online, he now tours the country advising parents, telling them “If we only knew; if he’d only told us.” In September, Mr. Halligan made his way to Arcola Intermediate School.

Even President Obama has addressed the issue, reminding kids, “You are not alone. You didn’t do anything wrong. You didn’t do anything to deserve being bullied. And there is a whole world waiting for you, filled with possibilities. There are people out there who love you and care about you just the way you are. And so, if you ever feel like because of bullying, because of what people are saying, that you’re getting down on yourself, you’ve got to make sure to reach out to people you trust. Whether it’s your parents, teachers, folks that you know care about you just the way you are. You’ve got to reach out to them; don’t feel like you’re in this by yourself.”

Meanwhile, in October, the North Penn School District presented the Internet safety program “Teenage At-Risk Trends: What Every Parent Needs to Know.” This month the district is offering “Good Kids in an At-Risk World: Parenting Skills for the 21st Century:

Where: Penndale Middle School, 400 Penn Street in Lansdale

When: Thursday, November 18th, at 7:00 p.m.

In addition, Pottsgrove School District’s SNAP (Students Need Assistance Project) Academy is offering two Internet safety presentations:

1. “Social Networking: Keeping Your Kids Safe on the Internet,” in the Pottstown High School auditorium, on November 22nd at 6:30 p.m.

2. “Cyber Issues: What You Need to Know,” in the Pottstown High School Auditorium on November 23rd at 6:30 p.m.

Getting in-the-know is crucial. A National Crime Prevention Council survey of 1,500 teens found that:

• 43% said they’d been cyberbullied last year;

• 96% have an email account;

• 43% said “their parents usually know what they’re doing online” but have no online use rules.

• 27% said their parents don’t know what they’re doing online; and

• Only 23% have and follow their parents’ rules.

Sadly, as the NCPC also reports, 81% of of the kids say cyberbullies think what they’re doing is funny; others say perpetrators . . .

• Don’t consider cyberbullying a big deal;

• Fail to consider the consequences;

• Are encouraged by their friends;

• Figure they won’t get caught.

And so many kids are involved. Says an survey:

• 42% of kids have been bullied online; 25% said it’s happened more than once.

• 35% have been threatened online; for almost 20%, that’s happened more than once.

• 21% have received mean or threatening emails or other messages.

• 58% admit someone said mean or hurtful things to them online; more than 40% said it had happened more than once.

• 53% admitted saying something mean or hurtful to someone online, with 33% doing so more than once.

• 58% of bullied kids admit they’d never confided in a parent or other adult.

Furthermore, a recent Cyberbullying Research Center survey of 4,400 children between the ages of ten and fourteen revealed that 20% had either been a victim or had engaged in cyberbullying. However, these figures likely underestimate the problem, as it’s hard for kids to admit such things.

Meanwhile, online cruelty is not restricted to just Facebook and MySpace. There’s even a site that openly invites mean-spiritedness. Called Burnbook, it touts itself as “a social utility that allows you to gossip about the people in your life while staying completely anonymous.” One visit tells you all you need to know: its popularity is undeniable; its potential for incivility is endless.

All this means parents must be aware and on the alert for the telltale signs that their child might be a victim:

1. Avoids going online or using a cell phone

2. Is anxious when receiving a text, instant message, or email

3. Is visibly upset after being online or using a cell phone

4. Hides or clears the screen when you appear

5. Withdraws from friends

6. Earns lower grades than usual

7. Doesn’t want to go to school

8. Is uncharacteristically sullen, pensive, withdrawn, or angry

9. Is excessively moody, frequently cries, and/or seems depressed

10. Has trouble sleeping and/or experiences a loss of appetite

11. Complains of stomach and/or headaches

12. Refuses to join in family and/or school activities

On the other hand, might your child be the cyberbully and not a victim? Perhaps, if s/he . . .

1. Uses a number of online accounts—even other people’s.

2. Is heard laughing excessively when on the phone or computer.

3. Avoids talking about online activities.

4. Closes out or clicks to another screen should you happen to approach.

5. Uses the computer a lot at night.

6. Would be very upset were you to deny computer or cell phone access.

Have no doubt: this is not child’s play, so be on guard and be sure to advise your child:

• Never post or share personal information like your full name, address, phone number, credit card, or social security number;

• Don’t share your passwords with anyone but us;

• Never agree to meet face-to-face with someone met only online; and

• Trust us and keep us informed about all of your online activities and experiences.

Then add this: “If you wouldn’t say it in person, don’t say it online. Delete cyberbullying; don’t write it; don’t forward it.”

And then fight back by seeking out more information and assistance from such sites as:

• ~ Says it’s “the only service that provides parents peach of mind and complete control over their children’s digital lives, protecting them from cyberbullying, sexting, cyber stalking, and threatening emails and text messages.

• ~ Says, “Some people think that Facebook monitors for content. They don’t. Some people think they can see everything their kids do simply by being their Facebook friend. They can’t. SocialShield sees it all and more and then we let you know right away when something goes wrong.”

• ~ Says it’s “the world’s largest Internet safety, help and education resource.”