Electronic threats, menacing messages. It’s bullying taken to a new level and kids as young as 10 are using the Internet to make life miserable for their schoolmates.
These tech-savvy imps remain elusive by signing on with alias screen names or using computers in public places. They invade chat rooms or instant message their targets with such warnings as "Watch your back."
Some bullies spread rumors that are sexual in nature about kids they don’t like. They post them on Web sites designed as virtual "slam books." Adding insult to injury, these sites link to dozens of schools, where thousands of other kids can log on, read the rumors and then add their own remarks about the subject or their own chosen target. Parents and educators representing nearly 100 middle and high schools in Southern California recently fought to have one such Web site, Schoolscandals.com, shut down. According to the Los Angeles Times, parents described the content as "libelous and harmful" and as having a "painful effect on youngsters."
Although bullying face-to-face still seems to be the preferred method of intimidation, experts say that Internet bullying is on the rise everywhere.
Everyone Wants Anonymity
Name calling, threats, hit lists – parents, bullies, victims, educators and law enforcers say, "yes," there have been incidences – but no one wants to name names. School districts don’t want the notoriety; social workers need to maintain confidences; former bullies just want to forget they were ever that "stupid" and kids who have been targeted fear reprisal.
Therefore, some names, dates and locations have been altered or excluded to protect those who contributed to this story.
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Confronting the Cyber Bully
Last month at a local elementary school, as the annual spring concert came to a close, one mom approached another for advice. "My daughter is getting threatening e-mails. She knows who they’re from but she’s afraid to tell on them." The mother explained that a group of fifth grade girls were sending instant messages to her daughter that read "We’re gonna get you" and "Watch your back in the halls." The mother was torn. Should she go to the principal? Should she confront the parents? Or should she go straight to the police? "They’re just kids," she reasoned, "but who knows what they’re really thinking." Parents who overheard this conversation were shocked. They’d just enjoyed a lovely musical performance by a group of bright-eyed, well-groomed fifth-grade students. Could it be that some of those very kids standing on the stage that night were involved?
"Unfortunately, it’s fairly common," says Alane Fagin, the executive director of Child Abuse Prevention Services (CAPS), a New York nonprofit organization that presents Bully Prevention workshops in schools. Bullying in general starts at the elementary level, Fagin explains, and it peaks in the sixth, seventh and eighth grades. Lately, she notes, calls have come in from parents of middle school students who have been harassed online by their peers. "Kids are very creative in their bullying. The bully online doesn’t have to face his target." Very often, it’s the girls who use the Internet to bully other girls, Fagin believes. "It’s called relational aggression. It’s the way girls bully as opposed to the way boys bully. With girls, it’s more insidious. They use relationships as weapons."
Fagin offers this scenario: A group of girls could be sitting around the computer, instant messaging their target. (The target thinks she is only communicating with one person.) At first, they befriend her. They gossip awhile about mutual friends and eventually the bullies ask leading questions, hoping to get their target to say something negative about one of the girls present. Once the target falls for it, the bullies use the gossip against her. "This leads to social isolation," says Fagin. And frustration for the parents who just want to nab the bully. "It’s heartbreaking for a parent," Fagin explains, "the problem, though, is that very often you don’t know for sure that the person on the other end is, in fact, that person – the actual bully." The most important thing a parent can do is support their child and acknowledge how he feels and, Fagin suggests, if your child’s attempts at confronting the bully online fails, it’s time to take it to the school principal. "The school can be a catalyst for discussing this with the kids – explaining to them that any one of them can become a victim." Fagin believes that Internet bullying can cause serious emotional problems. "With the flick of a key, you can cause irreparable damage to another."
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Jay was hesitant to recall the details of the heartache he and his buddies caused when they posted a "Hit List" of kids from their middle school that they "just didn’t like."
Are Your Kids Safe on the Internet?
"A bunch of us were sitting around the computer. We were bored, so we started fooling around, designing our own Web site. We called ourselves TAB – The Angry Boys. At the time, we were all intrigued with the whole mafia thing. We watched a lot of movies – Goodfellas, The Godfather," says Jay. He explains that he and the other 13-year-old boys were good, clean-cut kids – some played sports, others were involved in student government. They wanted to change their image. "We wanted to be known as the tough guys in school." Jay shakes his head and wipes his brow. His voice quivering, he continues, "We wrote that we wanted to weed out the people we didn’t like. Anybody that we didn’t hang out with was on the list. We titled it ‘People We’re Gonna Whack.’" The boys did not send the "hit list" to anyone. Instead, they bragged about the Web site and invited classmates to log on. Jay says it was just a joke that went too far. But the joke was on these "wise guys" who weren’t too bright. Not only did they list their screen names on the site, they included their legal names, making it easy for the victims and their parents to report them. "One of the kids on the list went to the principal with a copy of the Web site," says Jay, and from there it snowballed.
The bullies and their parents met with the principal, who wanted to keep the matter in-house. The boys were verbally disciplined and warned to destroy the Web site immediately, which they did. But the other parents were outraged. They weren’t convinced that the Web site was just fun and games. One parent filed a complaint with the local police. Jay and his fellow accomplices were called into the station house. Their computers were confiscated and examined for further evidence. Jay’s mother describes the experience as "the worst moment of my life. I was so angry at my son for his stupidity. What he did was cruel, but, on the other hand, he was only 13 years old." She says that when it was time for Jay to go to the precinct, "He was hysterical. He was holding onto me and sobbing."
Four months after the incident, after close examination, the police closed the case and the computers were returned to the families. Jay’s parents banned him from going online for six months. They forbade him to socialize with any of the boys involved and, the following school year, Jay says he had to work hard to regain the trust of his teachers, classmates and his family. Today, he spends his free time playing school sports and volunteering at church functions.
Whose Problem Is It?
"If it’s a one-time thing – ignore it," says Fagin, regarding an annoying e-mail from a known bully. "If it persists, do not engage the bully, get help." Kids should tell a parent, she advises. But who do parents turn to?
"Bullying comes under everyone’s jurisdiction," says Steve Treglia of the Nassau County (N.Y.) District Attorney’s office. As the crime unit’s chief of technology, Treglia says these cases are "not easy to prosecute." "The biggest issue is proving who is behind the keyboard." Treglia believes that if a child is being bullied online and there is no immediate danger, the best thing to do is to "preserve whatever you can." Save the threatening messages on a floppy disc or print out copies and then go to the school principal with your child. Sometimes the principal may be privy to a "history" between the bully and the target. "There may be bad blood between the kids," suggests Treglia. Or parents may be surprised to learn that their own child, who is claiming to be the target, may actually be the perpetrator, and the threatening e-mails may be coming from the victim who just wants him to back off.
In any case, Treglia and other experts advise parents to make the judgment call. If there is an immediate threat of physical harm, call 911 or your local precinct for help. However, if the bullying incident can be handled without police involvement, in most cases, school officials can squelch the problem. They have been trained to deal with school violence, since the Safe Schools Against Violence in Education Act (SAVE) was enacted by New York state legislators in 2000.
Whether bullying occurs in school, outside or over the Internet, it’s vital for parents to tell their kids to speak up, although Joakim Lartey, a training coordinator for the New York State Center for School Safety, notes that in focus groups, most kids say they don’t want to tell because they feel like a "snitch." "We need to send kids a message. Reporting a dangerous incident does not mean you are a tattletale. Parents should explain to their children that it is their responsibility as a citizen to help protect others," Lartey says.
Teaching Internet Responsibility
Experts agree that parents need to keep a close watch on their young children, whether they are accessing the Internet for research or to chat with friends. Treglia believes that parents need to understand their child’s Internet habits. "They also need to teach them how to spot when they are being harassed and they need to teach them not to harass others."
GetNetWise.org is a Web site created by a coalition of Internet corporations and public interest groups, whose aim is to educate families about online safety. The site offers a wealth of information for parents and children. Regarding threats, the site suggests that parents share this information with their children: "It is wrong and illegal to threaten, intimidate, or harass other people regardless of whether those threats are delivered in person, on the phone, via the mail or over the Internet." If your child is the recipient of an immediate personal threat of harm, GetNetWise.org recommends that parents call 911.
With summer approaching, Fagin suggests that parents be extra vigilant. "Our kids will spend more time online, unsupervised. Most of us wouldn’t drop our middle school kids off at the mall and leave them unsupervised, but we do that when we let them surf the Internet unsupervised."
• Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) – 202-324-3666; www.fbi.gov/publications/pguide/pguide.htm – Access this Web site for the document, "A Parent’s Guide to Internet Safety." Offers tips to keep kids safe online and a basic glossary of terms associated with Internet use.
• CyberAngels – www.cyberangels.org – Described as a "cyber-neighborhood watch," this Internet safety organization has a Web site that offers information for kids and parents regarding cyberstalking, online predators and more. It is a branch of the Guardian Angels crime-fighting organization.
• GetNetWise.org – www.GetNetWise.org – Offers guidance for families on Internet use and safety.
• Child Abuse Prevention Services (CAPS) – 516-621-0552; www.kidsafe-caps.org – The organization’s mission is to respond to child abuse and neglect on Long Island. Child safety and child abuse prevention workshops are offered, as well as bully prevention programs. The Web site offers information about bullies and what to do if your child is a victim.
See also: Cyber Tips for Parents
Marie Wolf is former associate editor of Long Island Parenting News.