Beware on the Web
Cyberbullying a Growing Concern for Parents, Schools
By JENNIFER FICKLEY-BAKER
With recent high-profiled cases revolving around cyberbullying - sending or receiving threatening messages online or via text message - teens' online interactions are becoming a growing concern for parents and school districts alike. A 2005 study on cyberbullying by Florida Atlantic University's Sameer Hinduja revealed that approximately 34.4 percent of adolescents reported experiencing some sort of cyberbullying.
What's even more troubling is that more than 40 percent of respondents didn't tell anyone about their cyberbullying experience.
Three recent cases of cyberbullying have shed light on just what a serious impact this type of bullying can have. Thirteen-year-old Megan Meier of Dardenne Prairie, Mo.; 15-year-old Jeffrey Johnston of Cape Coral; and 12-year-old Ryan Halligan of Essex Junction, Vt., each committed suicide after encountering separate acts of what their families consider to be cyberbullying.
In 2007, Meier hung herself after she was "dumped" by a male friend on MySpace, when in actuality the male friend was really a neighborhood girl and her mother posing as a teen boy.
Johnson killed himself in 2005 after receiving a string of threatening e-mails and Internet posts, and Halligan committed suicide in 2003 after false rumors about his sexual orientation spread online.
Though these cases represent the extreme end of the spectrum and each of these children may have had other factors affecting their emotional state, cyberbullying is an increasing problem that students across the nation are experiencing.
Cristin Cotton, a senior at Harrison Center for the Visual and Performing Arts, recently deleted her personal MySpace page. Not because she was being bullied, but because she wanted to avoid getting pulled into online drama.
"MySpace and Facebook and sites like that used to be a place to talk and hang out and stuff, but now girls get in fights online and guys get involved and it's a bad situation," Cotton said, and advises younger kids to be wary of what to post online. "Definitely be careful of what you say. I feel like a fight between you and your friend is a fight between you and your friend, not you and everyone else on the Internet."
When it comes to guarding against cyberbullying - or bullying of any kind - Polk County School District employs Jim Maxwell, a school psychologist who specializes in handling student conflict, as well as developing training for teachers on how to identify and deal with bullies.
WHO BECOMES A CYBERBULLY?
According to Maxwell, the cyberbully is a different kind of specimen than the average playground bully.
"The typical bully research indicates that kids that bully do so because it benefits them," he said. "It gives them a sense of control and power. ... Another characteristic of a bully is getting what he wants through intimidation, and that's the way it works at home. Often a bully at school is a child that's being bullied at home, generally by the dominant male in the house.
"The cyberbully who uses electronic media to repeatedly harass someone may be different. I suspect that the overall motives remain the same, but some cyberbully kids are simply bored. If you think of prank callers, they're just seeing if they can do it to do it. I think there's a wider variety of kids engaging in cyberbullying than in direct forms of bullying."
According to Maxwell, the school district does have the power to step in and punish those who engage in cyberbullying, even if the interactions do not occur on school property or on school-owned computers. If those online threats cause a disturbance at the school in the form of gossip, class disruption or a confrontation between the students, the school has the right to get involved, he said.
WHAT'S CYBERBULLYING AND WHAT'S A SPAT?
It is, however, difficult to define cyberbullying behavior. An administrator must look at the circumstances behind what is written. For example, was the student writing the message being sarcastic? Was the comment written in response to something the other person had written about them? Or are there specific threats involved?
"Typically, the way to distinguish between cyberbullying is that someone has to analyze what kind of threat is involved, how frequently it's being used, and the sort of nature of the threat. If it's a one-time thing, it's probably harassment," Maxwell said. "If it's in any way repeated or linked up with behaviors occurring in school, then you have a history of bullying."
Maxwell says the standard definition of bullying includes:
An intention to demean or embarrass or make someone feel powerless or actually hurt them.
Repetition over time, and
An imbalance of power between the bully and the victim.
"That's probably the hardest for law enforcement, parents and administrators to sort out," Maxwell said. "What if the victim has been annoying the kid that might be characterized as the bully and you have a kind of back-and-forth situation? I think that's more a feud or rivalry. In real bullying you have that repeated harassment and there's a real difference in the bully and victim."
IF YOU'RE BEING BULLIED
According to Maxwell, the best defense against cyberbullying is to actively protect your child's identity online, meaning that children and teens should take caution in who they give their e-mail address and phone number to, as well as what chat rooms or Web sites they visit.
He also recommends children keep an anonymous profile online. That means using a made-up username, not one that indicates a first or last name. Also, refrain from giving out personal information, like addresses and even what school they go to. If a cyberbully finds them anyway, a parent's first step is to make a record of the interaction and then head to the police.
"If you have a son or daughter and they really are being harassed, do a 'print screen' and save it as evidence of what's going on. Then talk to one of the authorities if there are serious threats, threats that imply that someone's going to get hurt. ... If it's more a school-related issue, talk to the principal or guidance counselor."
A "print screen" is a simple way to take a digital snapshot of an e-mail, instant message or message board posting that appears on your computer screen. Simply find the key on your computer's keyboard that says "Print Screen" or "PrtSc" and hit it once. It will take a snapshot of your current computer screen. Then paste it somewhere.
Lastly, Maxwell advises that parents do not approach the bully's parents about their children's online behavior. Most likely, your complaint will fall on deaf ears and may cause even more problems for the victim.
"The fact that a lot of times children are bullied at home means that their father or significant male gets what he wants through intimidation and is teaching this strategy to his child in an indirect way.
"If you go to someone like that and confront them about something their child has done wrong, you're likely to get bullied yourself and the interaction may not go well."