Overview of This Week’s Report: “Cyberbullying”

By Thomas Billitteri

The episodes are hurtful, ugly – and sometimes deadly. In Lakeland, Fla., a group of teenagers records the beating of another teen and threatens to show the video on the Internet. The local sheriff says the attack was in retaliation for online trash-talking by the victim.

At a high school near Pittsburgh, an anonymous e-mail list features sexually explicit rankings of 25 female students, names and photos included.

In suburban Dardenne Prairie, Mo., near St. Louis, 13-year-old Megan Meier hangs herself after receiving cruel messages on the social-networking site MySpace. She thinks the messages are from a boy she met online, but the messages are a hoax.

In Essex Junction, Vt., 13-year-old Ryan Patrick Halligan kills himself after months of harassment, including instant messages calling him gay. “He just went into a deep spiral in eighth grade,” said his father, who advocates a state law forcing schools to develop anti-bullying policies. “He couldn’t shake this rumor.”

The cases, albeit extreme, highlight what school officials, child psychologists, legal experts and government researchers argue is a fast-spreading epidemic of “cyberbullying” – the use of the Internet, cell phones and other digital technology to harass, intimidate, threaten, mock and defame.

Experts say cyberbullying has become a scourge of the adolescent world, inflicting painful scars on youngsters and vexing adults unable to stop the abuse. While many instances are relatively harmless, others can have serious, long-lasting effects, ranging from acute emotional distress, academic problems and school absenteeism to violence, a desire for revenge and vulnerability to sexual predation.

Studies show cyberbullying affects millions of adolescents and young adults and can be more prevalent among girls than boys, especially in the earlier grades. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention last year labeled “electronic aggression” – its term for cyberbullying – an “emerging public-health problem.” Still, a reliable profile of cyberbullying is difficult to construct. Research is in its infancy, experts who measure online abuse define it in different ways and many incidents are difficult to tally accurately. Studies leave little doubt, however, that cyberbullying is growing, as the following small sampling of recent research makes clear:

* Roughly a third of teens who use the Internet said they’d received threatening messages, had e-mail or text messages forwarded without consent, had an embarrassing picture posted without consent, had rumors about them spread online, or experienced some other kind of online harassment, according to the Pew Research Center.

* About 9 percent of respondents ages 10 through 17 said they were victims of threats or other offensive behavior, not counting sexual solicitation, that was sent online to them or about them for others to see, according to a 2005 University of New Hampshire survey. That rate was up 50 percent from a similar survey five years earlier.

* More than 70 percent of heavy Internet users ages 12 through 17 – mostly girls – said they had experienced at least one incident of online intimidation via e-mail, cell phones, chat rooms and other electronic media in the previous year, according to a national survey posted on a teen Web site in 2005 by Jaana Juvonen, a psychology professor at the University of California at Los Angeles. A fifth of respondents reported seven or more incidents.

Some cyberbullies are angry loners or misfits, sometimes seeking revenge for having been bullied themselves. But experts say it is common for online abusers to be popular students with plenty of self-esteem who are trying to strengthen their place in the social hierarchy. They do it by intimidating those they perceive to have less status.

“It’s not really the schoolyard thug character” in some cases, says Nancy Willard, executive director of the Center for Safe and Responsible Internet Use, a research and professional development organization in Eugene, Ore. “It’s the in-crowd kids bullying those who don’t rank high enough.”

What fuels cyberbullying is “status in schools – popularity, hierarchies, who’s cool, who’s not,” says Danah Boyd, a fellow at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard Law School who studies teens’ behavior on MySpace, Facebook and other social-networking sites. Peer pressure for status is further aggravated by adult pressure on teens to succeed, which can breed a cruel game of one-upmanship, Boyd says. “That pressure exerted by parents and reinforced and built out in peer groups is sort of the Petri dish for bullying.”

Of course, bullying itself is nothing new. In some respects, cyberbullying is simply a new manifestation of a problem that in earlier days played out chiefly in playground dustups and lunch-money shakedowns.

What’s new is the technology. More than 90 percent of teens are online. More than half of online teens have profiles on social-networking sites. And cell phones – many with photo and instant-messaging capabilities – are ubiquitous. The rise of networking sites, personal Web pages and blogs brimming with the minutiae of teen antics and angst has helped to create a rich climate for cyber mayhem: locker-room photos snapped with cell phones and broadcast on the Internet, fake profiles created on social-networking sites, salacious rumors spread in chat rooms, threats zapped across town in instant messages.

Child advocates also tie the increase in cyberbullying to a rise in incivility in the broader culture, from gratuitous insults on popular TV shows like “American Idol” to cynical sniping on the presidential campaign trail.

“I think the culture is angrier,” says Mark Weiss, education director of Operation Respect, a nonprofit group in New York City founded by folk singer Peter Yarrow (a member of the legendary trio Peter, Paul and Mary) that promotes safe and compassionate educational climates. While kids have always picked on each other, Weiss says “the virulence is greater” today than in past generations.

“It’s more intense, it might be more widespread, and I think you see more of it. The things on TV, the laugh tracks of situation comedies, it’s all about making fun of each other and putting each other down, and reality TV is all about humiliation.”

Cyberbullying has impelled lawmakers, especially at the state level, to either pass anti-bullying laws that encompass cyberbullying or add cyberbullying to existing statutes. Some laws are propelled by a mix of concern about electronic bullying and online sexual predators.

But using laws and courts to stop cyberbullying has been tricky and sometimes highly controversial. “There’s a big conflict in knowing where to draw the line between things that are rude and things that are illegal,” says Parry Aftab, an Internet privacy and security lawyer who is executive director of wiredsafety.org, an Internet safety group in Irvington-on-Hudson, N.Y., that bills itself as the world’s largest.

School officials, for instance, must negotiate the treacherous shoals of cyberbullying content transmitted by a student who is off school grounds. Legal precedents on student expression allow educators to suppress speech that substantially disrupts the educational process or impinges on the rights of others. Some argue that school officials’ authority to regulate cyber communication stops at the schoolhouse door, while others say they should regulate it when it affects the school climate.

“Even when it’s off campus, the impact is coming to school in the form of young people who have been so tormented they are incapable of coming to school to study, which leads to dropouts, fights, violent altercations and suicide,” says Willard, a former attorney and former teacher of at-risk children. “It has an incredibly long-lasting effect on the school community.”

But the law on that question can be confusing, and the U.S. Supreme Court has yet to decide a case involving student Internet speech. Trying to regulate what students do or say on their home computers or in text messages sent from the local mall could wind up trampling students’ constitutional rights or the rights of parents to direct their children’s upbringing as they see fit, say free-speech advocates.

“There are more questions than answers in this emerging area of law,” David L. Hudson Jr., research attorney for the First Amendment Center, a free-speech advocacy group, noted recently.

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