Cyberbullying: The New Bathroom Wall

By the Duke University Talent Identification Program

Remember the nasty note passed around at school or the mean graffiti scrawled on the bathroom wall? Bullies and mean girls are still in school classrooms, hallways, and playgrounds; they just can use new digital tools to be cruel now. Cyberbullying is the term most people use to describe bullying another person via e-mail, instant or text messaging, comments on webblogs or in online video games, or postings to Web sites or chat rooms. What’s different is that cyberbullying can be much crueler, often happens on public internet sites, and can spread virally.

Fortunately, cyberdrama is a lot more common than extreme cases of cyberbullying.

In many ways cyberbullying has democratized bullying because you don’t have to be able to physically overpower your victim—a person can simply log on, create a new identity, and bully away. Cyberbullying is mostly relational bullying, or the “mean girls” phenomenon gone digital. Instead of whispers behind teens’ backs, the insults are posted for everyone to read. Instead of one girl silently listening in on a phone conversation, two girls can watch incriminating IMs from an unsuspecting “buddy” pop up on a computer screen. Instead of a clique not letting a girl sit with them at lunch, a group of friends can decide to keep her off everyone’s buddy lists. Teachers and parents may never suspect that it’s the well-behaved or high-achieving students who may be tormenting their peers. Cyberbullies are often known for being the teens who would be least suspected of these behaviors.

Nancy Willard, the executive director of the Center for Safe and Responsible Internet Use, describes the most common tactics used in cyberbullying:

Flaming: Teens will flame each other with a nasty instant message, text message, or e-mail that uses harsh language or profanity, usually in the heat of the moment as part of an argument.

Harassment and cyber stalking extend beyond flaming when the messages become more frequent and escalate into being obsessive.

Impersonation involves stealing an individual’s password and hijacking that person’s online account or creating an account as someone else to either flame others or humiliate the person you’re impersonating.

Denigration involves statements meant to put another teen down circulated by texting, IMing, or posting to public Web pages or profiles, for example “Janie is a such-and-such.” This also happens a lot on rating sites where teens are ranked as the “ugliest” or other undesirable trait.

Outing happens when a teen shares another’s secret online without permission, such as posting a potentially damaging photo or disclosing sexual identity without the subject’s knowledge.

Because cyberbullying often happens on public sites, the stakes are much higher for both the bully and the bullied. There have been expulsions and lawsuits filed over MySpace pages dedicated to ridiculing students, teachers, or administrators or YouTube videos showing teens fighting and being beaten up.

Communicating digitally makes it easier to be a lot meaner, since teens can’t see the people they’re bullying, their emotional response, or the look into their eyes. And just like chain e-mails and urban legends spread prolifically, so can humiliating or explicitly-detailed hidden camera video or photos. Teenagers can use technology to broadcast text or images to hundreds of people in a simple click..

Fortunately, cyberdrama is a lot more common than extreme cases of cyberbullying. Cyberdrama tends to be gossip that wasn’t supposed to be shared on a blog or a flame war that ends after a few messages. Most teens are savvy about telling each other to cut it out, will block a user, or even open a new account, if necessary.

If your teen is the victim of more extreme cyberbullying, save every message, image or sound file, or Web page as documentation should you decide to build a legal case. If your teen doesn’t know who is behind the cyberbullying, contact the Web site host, instant messaging client, wireless company, or your Internet service provider where the bullying behavior is taking place to find out who is responsible.

Just as teens don’t like to tell parents or other adults when they’re being bullied offline, the same goes for extreme cases of cyberbullying. They fear that if they tell, their parents will cut them off from using the Internet. The best way to encourage open dialog with teens about cyberbullying is to grant them amnesty—tell them you won’t take the computer away, even if they’re involved in the bullying (there can be a different consequence).

Most importantly, when you are teaching your children ethics, be sure to add the “cyber” aspect to this discussion. Remind them that the Internet is a public place, that information (good or bad) can spread virally, and that kids can be crueler online than face-to-face. Teach them never to record hidden camera video or images. You don’t have to be a computer whiz to do what parents do best—teach your children how to treat others with respect and dignity.

Anastasia Goodstein, MSJ

Anastasia Goodstein is the founder of and author of  Totally Wired: What Teens & Tweens Are Really Doing Online, St. Martin’s Griffin, 2007

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