More threads by David Baxter PhD

David Baxter PhD

Late Founder
Cyber-Bullies in the Spotlight
Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Oh, the many promises and horrors offered by the World Wide Web. Easy access free forums allow for far greater degrees of cultural discourse than ever before. Citizens of disparate backgrounds, locations and persuasions can comment, argue and find common ground on presidential candidates, sports teams, technologies and celebrities major and minor. On a far more unfortunate note: anonymous users can harass innocent web surfers of all ages. While statistics vary, all agree that a disturbing number of kids encounter offensive, malicious or outright illegal online content at the hands of others. This trend is hardly limited to predatorial internet bogeymen seeking some sort of perverse interaction with those too young to know better: one of the more curious and potentially disruptive behaviors spawned by the online revolution is an expansion of powers held by the common bully, and some states have begun to consider legislation to punish those whose egregious behavior flirts with the limits of the law.

The very public nature of social networking sites and similar pages allowing users to share personal information makes them perfect fodder for individuals seeking sadistic pleasure via digital harassment. No longer limited to the playground, bullying behaviors can include leaving insulting or threatening comments on one's personal page, blog or community message board and sending angry text or instant messages and distributing contact information to other "enemies." The anonymity afforded by the web often leaves victims unable to respond to their tormentors or uncover their identities.

The results of two recent studies would seem on first glance to contradict each other, finding that 1/3 and, alternately, 1/10 of internet users aged 10 to 15 or 17 encountered some form of online harassment over the previous year. The difference between the definitions of "harassment" offered by these studies must be noted: the first described it as any time a user felt embarrassed, worried or threatened by online postings or internet messages. The second, less damning survey asked subjects whether someone had made rude or insulting comments or spread rumors about them in particular. The 10% study seems to better define the concept of cyber-bullying, delineating merely offensive material from malicious personal attacks. Still, there's no question that the trend is on the upswing, as the number of subjects reporting incidents of cyber-bullying was considerably higher than in previous studies. And a behavior affecting 1 in 10 American kids can hardly be dismissed as insignificant.

So most examples of "cyber-bullying" are relatively mild and should probably receive their own unique classification, but the bully's potential ability to wreak far greater damage is considerable. And the practice is hardly limited to immature, anonymous name-calling of the type perpetrated by networking teens or voracious partisans. Perhaps the most heinous, widely publicized case of cyber-harassment was, in fact, perpetrated by an adult in cooperation with her child (cyber-harassment differs from bullying only in that it is not solely perpetrated by a minor). Megan Meier, a 13 year-old middle schooler who'd experienced problems with low self-esteem and depression, committed suicide after an online crush called her friendship into question, suggesting that the world "would be a better place" without her. The boy who left this message was, in fact, a fictional profile created by the mother of one of Meier's friends. The girl in question was offended by Meier's decision to end their friendship. While the act was mean-spirited and selfish, the perpetrators cannot have imagined the horrible consequences it would provoke. Still, many have called for them to be punished, and the town passed a subsequent ordinance making online harassment punishable by fines and brief jail time.

One reason this case has provoked such an outcry among kids, parents and bloggers around the world is that it remains a solitary and almost unbelievable incident. The fact that it happened at all leads to obvious speculation about other potential offenses and exactly how the online "community" can minimize the risk of future tragedies. Unfortunately, most teens do not report such incidents for fear of increased parental oversight or loss of their online privileges. Parents should, obviously, talk to their kids about the risks and benefits of the web, encouraging them to be both safe and candid. But most teens are more web-savvy than their elders, able to distinguish real threats from bad behavior and avoid both by making their profiles private and staying away from suspect websites. One can only hope that tragedies like the Meier incident will remain extremely rare cautionary tales warning against the terrible possibilites allowed by misuse of the web.

More: STOP Cyberbullying: What it is, how it works, and how to understand and deal with cyberbullies
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