New technologies — cell phones with cameras, social-networking sites, and instant messaging — have been speedily embraced by teens and pre-teens alike. While these technologies provide easy access to information and make communication among family and friends easier, they also provide new platforms for kids to tease and torment each other.
Cyberbullying has become such a concern in some states that laws have been introduced to address it and school districts are establishing policies to combat it.
Face-to-face bullying, defined as repeated, abusive behavior toward another person, can be both physical and psychological. Cyberbullying, however, is purely psychological, and the repertoire of tactics used in cyberspace has grown over time to include these methods:
- Sending hate email messages
- Creating Web sites meant to humiliate a victim
- Forwarding private emails without permission
- Taking an embarrassing photo with a camera phone and posting it on the Internet
- Setting up polls on Web sites to vote on who’s the fattest, ugliest, geekiest, or sluttiest kid in the school
Real-life cyberbullying looks like this:
- One classic example of cyberbullying is the case of a Canadian boy, now known as the Star Wars kid . A video tape of him pretending to be a Star Wars character was posted on the Internet without his knowledge or permission. The video then took on a life of its own as it was downloaded and modified many times and ultimately spread around the world.
- In a school district in New Jersey, a student posted a “hit list” of other students on a Web site. (The Daily Journal, New Jersey, Jan. 24, 2006)
- A Massachusetts high school student was mocked on a popular teen blogging site when fellow students impersonated her and posted fictitious sexual journal entries. (The Boston Globe, June 30, 2005)
Face-to-face (F2F) bullying versus cyberbullying
The schoolyard bully has nothing on the cyberbully.
- The cyberbully has a much wider audience, potentially the whole world. Through Web sites and the forwarding of email messages, the damage can be more far-reaching than most tweens and teens imagine or intend.
- The victim of cyberbullying has less ability to escape the tormentor. Simply avoiding the bully doesn’t solve the problem when a cyberbully can continue to email, text message and post abusive comments.
- The cyberbully can remain anonymous or impersonate others, thereby escaping punishment.
- The cyberbully, by not being physically present to see or experience the reactions of the victim, remains alienated from the consequences of his actions.
- Any slanderous information sent out into cyberspace is difficult, if not impossible, to completely expunge from the Internet.
How common is it?
Cyberbullying is a new phenomenon, hence little scientific research exists to date on its true extent. However, a handful of survey results are starting to become available. For example, a 2005 survey of 1,500 adolescents, conducted by researchers Sameer Hinduja, Ph.D., and Justin Patchin, Ph.D., found that over one-third of those surveyed reported that they had been bullied online.
According to Hinduja, cyberbullying can occur among children as young as 9 or 10 years old, or as soon as they’re comfortable typing on keyboard. “This is happening among all ages, to be honest,” he says. “Kids are embracing technology at such an early age. Our online research indicates that middle-schoolers are just as likely to be cyberbullies or victims of cyberbullying as are high schoolers.”
A 2005 survey of UK teens, found that 20% said that they had experienced some form of cyberbullying.
An Australian study, reports that cyberbullying incidents are occurring around the globe, in such places as Japan, Australia, Canada and Scandinavia.
Cyberbullying happens because there is little supervision of kids in the cyberworld and because the media provides anonymity for the bully. “There’s no monitoring in cyberspace,” says Hinduja, “plus parents do not — and I believe should not — always stand there looking over children’s shoulders when they’re on the computer, because there needs to be a level of trust there. It would certainly help for parents to regularly go online with their kids and discuss issues related to Internet safety with them. Nevertheless, just like offline behaviors, parents cannot supervise their kids 100% of the time and must establish appropriate Internet usage rules even when those parents aren’t around. Also, there’s the fact that when you’re behind the keyboard and the computer monitor, it takes less fortitude to express really malicious comments, because of the anonymity and because they’re physically distant from the victim. It’s much easier to be cruel.”
What can be done?
There are many steps to take before bringing in the police, but parents should know that law enforcement can assist when, and if, necessary.
Sgt. John Geraty, of the San Francisco Police Internet Crimes Against Children unit, explains that while there are no laws specific to cyberbullying, there are times when a line is crossed and law enforcement can step in. “Cases that involve threats of death or injury to a person or their family, and which the recipient believes to be credible, should be reported to law enforcement immediately.”
In such cases, it’s important to preserve the evidence. “A copy of the email with the full header information should be given to the police,” says Geraty. “This will provide law enforcement with the information needed to trace the sender. The option for viewing the full header is often located in the Mail Preferences tab of your email service browser. If threats of injury or death occur via a chat session, the sender’s screen name, the time and date the threats occurred, and the Internet Service Provider should be provided to the police.”
Evidence should be given to the police as soon as possible, urges Gerity. “ISPs vary in terms of how long they save information. AOL, for example, will save information of chat users, such as their IP addresses, for seven days before purging. Other ISPs save information for only 30 days. The sooner incidents of crime are reported to law enforcement, the sooner information can be preserved for an investigation.”
Some states, such as Washington, are introducing legislation that will specifically address cyberbullying in the schools. Currently, however, the only tool that many states have in their legal toolboxes are anti-stalking statutes that mention electronic communications.
Districts and schools
Cyberbullying often takes place outside of school, leaving the schools with limited ability to prevent it.
“I’ve had a kid come to me to say that she received abusive emails from an online chat room and that she felt scared about it,” says Sara Spence, a middle and high school counselor in San Francisco. “From a school counselor’s perspective, it’s a relatively new phenomenon. I feel like my hands are tied. I mean, when you receive emails from an unknown person, I don’t really know if there’s a protocol in place for me to do anything.”
A growing number of schools are starting to develop policies and procedures to address some of the behaviors associated with cyberbullying, such as blocking access to problematic Web sites and controlling usage of cell phones on campus, especially in locker rooms, restrooms or by pools.
The key to cyberbullying prevention just might be the parent. Children and teens are often unsupervised on the family computer, know more about technology than their parents or are not taught proper social skills regarding electronic media. As a parent you can help prevent cyberbullying by:
- Supervising your child’s use of the computer. If your child has a computer in her bedroom, it’s difficult to supervise her. Many experts recommend moving the computer into a family room.
- Learning about the sites that your child visits and what he’s doing online
- Encouraging your child to come to you if he is experiencing cyberbullying, or has witnessed it. According to a survey by iSafe.org, 58% of kids did not tell their parents when someone was abusive to them online.
- Being concerned if your child spends excessive amounts of time online or hides the screen when you approach
- Having your child fill out an agreement about safe Internet practices. A sample agreement can be found on WiredKids.org. (This form is courtesy of Parry Aftab, an Internet privacy and security lawyer and creator of the WiredKids Web site.)
- Teaching your child empathy for others
Hinduja advises parents to take a measured approach when dealing with a child’s access to the Internet. “The child needs to know that the parent is not going to take away their Internet privileges if they tell them about something bad that’s happening. They need to know that the parent is going to respond very calmly and intelligently, and help them without taking away this privilege that is really important to them. Then, of course, the child has to agree that they’re not going to do such things as talk to strangers online and so forth.”
Children and teens
Students can protect themselves from cyberbullying by:
- Being careful about giving out personal information, such as email addresses and phone numbers. Kids should never reveal an email password, even to a close friend. If a friendship suddenly goes sour, the former friend can use the password to get into the account and impersonate the owner.
- Speaking to a trusted adult if something seems wrong
- Walking away from the computer if harassment starts
- Not replying to bullying emails or instant messages
- Being aware that whatever happens online can be reproduced and spread very easily. Nothing online is ever really private
A few words about blocking abusive emails
Hinduja cautions against expecting too much from “blocking” email addresses or instant messenger names. “You could be on instant messenger being flooded with all kinds of hateful comments and you could block that one sender, but that person could just use another email address or screen name and continue the harassment.”
Parents can always notify Internet service providers of abuse, which may or may not stop the perpetrator. Hinduja explains how that works: “When emails travel from sender to recipient, they hop across multiple computers on multiple networks. Each of those computers stamps information covertly on the emails, which we can use to tell the IP (Internet Protocol) address of each and track back to see which ISP owns the IP address of the computer where the message originated. This information is found in the header of the email, and is not usually displayed by default in email programs. If you enable the viewing of header information, you can identify whether the sender was connected to Earthlink or BellSouth or AOL or Adelphia or any other ISP. Once you identify the ISP, you can forward the email — including all header information — to the ISP’s abuse mailboxes, which are typically abuse@ispdomainname. For example, Earthlink’s abuse mailbox would be firstname.lastname@example.org. By doing this you’re providing them with evidence of harassment and misuse of their network resources, which violates the ISP’s Terms of Service and then they can terminate the account.”
“But the perpetrator can always just sign up for another account.”
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