More threads by David Baxter PhD

David Baxter PhD

Late Founder
When the Bullies Turned Faceless
by Peter Newcomb, New York Times
December 16, 2007

DARDENNE PRAIRIE, Mo. -- LIKE most mobs, the one that pursued Megan Meier was cruel and unrelenting. Its members gathered on the social networking site MySpace and called Megan a liar, a fat whore and worse.

Megan, 13, fought back, insulting her tormenters with every profanity she knew. But the mob shouted her down, overwhelming her computer and her shaky self-confidence with a barrage of hateful instant messages.

?Mom, they?re being horrible!? Megan said, sobbing into the phone when her mother called. After an hour, Megan ran into her bedroom and hanged herself with a belt.

?She felt there was no way out,? Ms. Meier said.

Megan Meier?s suicide made headlines because she was the victim of a hoax. Lori Drew, another mother in the neighborhood, said in a police report that she had created a MySpace profile of a boy, an invention named ?Josh Evans,? and that she and her daughter had manipulated Megan into thinking that this fabricated person liked her.

Then, after a few weeks, Ms. Meier said, girls posing as Josh wrote MySpace messages telling Megan that he hated her. He insulted her, and other girls ? most unaware that Josh did not exist ? viciously piled on. (Later, through her lawyer, Ms. Drew, 48, denied knowing about the hoax.)

In some ways, the hoax was a tragic oddity. Most mothers don?t pull vicious pranks, and few harassed adolescents become depressed and commit suicide. But Megan?s story is also a case study about cyberbullying.

Cellphone cameras and text messages, as well as social networking Web sites, e-mail and instant messaging, all give teenagers a wider range of ways to play tricks on one another, to tease and to intimidate their peers.

And unlike traditional bullying, which usually is an intimate, if highly unpleasant, experience, high-tech bullying can happen anywhere, anytime, among lots of different children who may never actually meet in person. It is inescapable and often anonymous, said sociologists and educators who have studied cyberbullying.

Even in this town, where Megan?s name is a constant reminder of the danger of the Web, adolescents say they love using the technology ? and some do a little bullying of their own.

?I?m sure that every girl at this table has used cellphones or instant messaging to say something mean about somebody,? said Victoria Fogarty, as she discussed bullying with six other adolescents. Victoria, 14, is the daughter of Pam Fogarty, the mayor of Dardenne Prairie, and an eighth grader at West Middle School, which Megan attended.

Other children are afraid of becoming the next victim.

?Once you?re on MySpace, you?re trapped,? said Jake Dobson, 12, a seventh grader at West Middle School. ?You spend all your time online just trying to keep the negative stuff about you from spreading.?

Megan Meier spent months begging for a MySpace page before her mother finally gave in. Ms. Meier thought that making friends online could be good for her daughter, a sensitive girl who craved an emotional connection.

But that neediness made Megan vulnerable. By the third grade Megan hated herself and talked of suicide, Ms. Meier said. The diagnosis was depression and attention deficit disorder, which meant Megan would receive weekly counseling and an evolving list of medications as treatment.

By the time she reached seventh grade at West Middle School, Megan was overweight but active, Ms. Meier said. She hung out with other volleyball players, who were in the second tier of popular girls, just beneath the soccer players, said Laura Rodgers, 14, Megan?s friend.

She aped the styles of those above her, Ms. Meier said. She favored clothes like Hollister and Abercrombie & Fitch. Sometimes she applied so much mascara that she resembled a raccoon. Occasionally she would gleefully accept a soccer girl?s invitation to sit at the popular table during lunch, Laura said.

These moments of success faded during gym class, when Megan had to trade her plus-size designer clothes for athletic shorts and T-shirts. ?People in P.E. class called her fat every day,? Laura said. ?I?d see her in the locker room crying.?

After a difficult year, Megan?s parents transferred their daughter to Immaculate Conception Catholic School in Dardenne Prairie. The school had strict policies aimed at avoiding cliques. Students wear uniforms, and they are assigned lunch tables so they can socialize with everybody.

?There aren?t really cliques there at all,? said Rachel Garzon, 14, who befriended Megan. ?You might be closer friends with some people, but you can walk up and talk to anybody and they?ll be nice to you.?

Megan, who had escaped the old cliques, retained her old MySpace page. ?She technically wasn?t old enough, because you have to be 14,? Ms. Meier said. ?But I was the only one who knew the password. I read every message she received or sent. I thought I could keep it safe, and Megan could meet some friends.?

MySpace uses algorithms and people to strike harassing or bullying images and content, the company said in a written statement, and the site offers users opportunities to report cyberbullies.

But controlling the Web can be almost impossible, experts on children say, and most adolescents are simply not mature enough to handle the virtual world and its anonymous attacks. For instance, ?Adolescents take what is said online as the literal truth,? said Justin Patchin, assistant professor of criminal justice at the University of Wisconsin, Eau Claire, who studies cyberbullying.

And, as in the Megan Meier case, the victim of cyberbullying is often isolated, yet never free from attack. ?The target sees this entire cyberuniverse where everybody is against them, and no one will come to their defense,? said Dr. Walter Roberts, professor of counselor education at Minnesota State University, Mankato. ?The harassment is not limited to the portion of the day when the kids are in school. The targeted kids have no escape.?

Three years ago, before Megan?s suicide, the school system identified cyberbullying as a serious problem, said Kim Carter, assistant superintendent for student services in the Fort Zumwalt School District.

In 2005, the school surveyed students and teachers. And before and after Megan?s death, the district held a variety of assemblies, meetings and workshops to train students, parents, faculty and administrators how to recognize and react to cyberbullying.

While all the vigilance has helped, students say, cyberbullying remains common. Last month, a girl won $500 in a class raffle. Before her teacher even opened the door to excuse everyone, the rest of the school was abuzz with rumors that she had cheated, said Sarah Fogarty, another of the mayor?s children.

How was that possible? Cellphones are supposed to be turned off in school. Girls practice text messaging with their eyes closed, Sarah said. They?ve become adept at pressing buttons under their desks while keeping their focus on the teacher.

?I?m not good at it yet,? Sarah said.

This fall an unpopular boy started break dancing at a football game. People took cellphone photos and videos, which they immediately forwarded to hundreds of people. ?They were egging him on because they wanted to keep making fun of him, and the photos made him look ridiculous,? said Jake Dobson, the seventh grader.

Even popular kids feel vulnerable.

Ryan Franklin, 12, was a star player on his Little League baseball team until he needed stomach surgery last summer, said his mother, Sonya Franklin. As he recovered, a friend sent e-mail messages to dozens of students falsely stating that Ryan had made sexual comments about a girl in class, Ms. Franklin said.

?The truth was that he?d stopped playing baseball and so he?d lost some of his status,? Ms. Franklin said. ?Some people started picking on him because he was an easier target.? The e-mail messages stopped only when she threatened to call the boy?s mother.

Jake Dobson admits he?s not above an instant message making fun of someone, even if he knows that the same thing could happen to him.

?It?s like I can?t even do anything because everybody is sitting there with a cellphone just waiting for me to mess up,? he said.
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