New Ways to be Mean
By Susan Flynn
In the not-so-distant past, kids who wanted to pick on someone after school might make a crank phone call. Today, the arsenal of technological tools available to harass their classmates is far more extensive, accessible and, some would say, dangerous.
They can send mean text messages from cell phones at all hours of the day. They can post unflattering photos of peers on Facebook. They can upload an embarrassing video onto YouTube to be viewed by millions.
Students have been subjected to traditional bullying – teasing, spreading rumors, shoving a kid against the locker – for generations. What’s new, experts say, is the increased means to be mean.
“In a lot of ways, technology has made our lives easier,” says Joan Scribner, a high school principal and president of the Massachusetts Secondary School Administrators’ Association. “But it has also made kids a little braver in their bullying. The taunting and the teasing have certainly risen to a different level. We all see it as a growing problem.”
By now you’ve likely heard the term “cyberbullying,” defined as repeated, electronic-based bullying via computers and cell phones. According to one recent survey by the Massachusetts Aggression Reduction Center, 42 percent of students say they’ve been the victims of cyberbullying. In one highly publicized case, an autistic student on Cape Cod attended his first school dance and was videotaped by a student with a cell phone. The student later posted the clip on YouTube and classmates posted comments making fun of the 12-year-old and his dance moves.
“Adolescents can do very mean and cruel things,” says Justin Patchin, co-director of the Cyberbullying Research Center, an organization and Web site providing information on the causes and consequences of cyberbullying among tweens and teens. Patchin and center co-director Sameer Hinduja are associate professors in criminal justice at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire and Florida Atlantic University respectively.“What we have found,” Patchin says, “is that a lot of things kids will say online, they would never do in real life.”
Therein lies one of the main differences with cyberbullyinga versus the traditional bullying counterpart – the victims often do not know the identity of their harasser. Is it a friend? An old boyfriend? Someone in gym class? The anonymity tends to make the “bully” braver, and more reckless. Or sometimes, an e-mail intended as a joke is not interpreted that way and blows up into a feud among friends, once it is forwarded again and again.
“I think it’s hard when someone sends you something in an e-mail or a text,” says Brigitte Berman, a Dover teen who wrote and self-published the book Dorie Witt’s Guide to Surviving Bullies. “We can’t hear their voice. We can’t see their facial expressions.”
While traditional bullying was a boy-dominated thing, Patchin has found that girls are just as likely “if not more likely” to participate in cyberbullying. Girls also are more likely to be the victims, he adds.
This new form of bullying also occurs around the clock. “It’s not suffering the physical effects of traditional [schoolyard] bullying, but we would argue that some of the side effects are worse,” says Patchin. “It doesn’t go away when you leave school. You can’t escape it.”
Realizing the prevalence of the problem, the Massachusetts State Legislature is debating a law that would require all public schools to develop anti-bullying programs for students, which would include cyberbullying. The law, backed by the Anti-Defamation League, would also require school staff to report cases of bullying. Right now, 38 states have anti-bullying laws. Experts say that constant bullying can lower self-esteem, hurt grades and, in worse-case scenarios, lead to suicide or cause a teen to retaliate using violence.
A Widespread Problem
Incidents of cyberbullying first began to rear their ugly heads in 2005-2006, according to Elizabeth Englander, director of the Massachusetts Aggression Center at Bridgewater (MA) State College. The spark, she says, was the saturation of the cell phone market among young teens. “Schools started calling us looking for help and we began doing research,” says Englander, who is frequently tapped to train educators, police and prosecutors about cyberbullying.
In a recent study of 334 college freshman, the center’s researchers discovered that:
• 43 percent knew someone who had to contact police because of severe bullying or cyberbullying.
• 71 percent believe anonymity is the reason why people chose to bully using instant messaging, blogs and cell phones.
• 54 percent of females say they cyberbully because they’re angry; whereas 44 percent of males say they do it as a joke.
Those findings are consistent with national research on the issue, Englander says, but notes that some school administrators, wary of a stigma, are reluctant to report a cyberbullying problem. The truth is, the presence of this problem is not indicative of a good school system or a bad school system. If teens are in the building, you will have cyberbullying, she says.
The abuse seems to escalate in middle school, where cell phones are still a new accessory, and so is navigating the social landscape.“We see girls get into these minor altercations and then get home and send out these (e-mail) barbs that escalate the whole thing,” Englander says. “By high school, typically, they tend to shrug many of these minor things off.”
Rosalind Wiseman, author of the New York Times best-seller Queen Bees & Wannabees (Crown, 2002) recently updated her book to cover how technology influences girls’ social lives, for better and for worse. “The harassment you grew up with is most likely tame compared with what the average high school person experiences on a daily basis,” she writes. “There was no way you would be sitting in math class and an instant message pops up from the girl sitting in the front row about what an ugly fat cow you are. There was no way you got a text from the guy sitting behind you about how hot you are.”
The Girls Scouts of USA recently developed an online initiative called “Let Me Know,” to help parents. The first topic chosen was cyberbullying, which is now also covered in the Girl Scouts Handbook. “We started out by talking about how to start fires and how to put up a tent,” says Jamie Joyce, vice president of interactive marketing for the Girl Scouts. “Now it’s cyberbullying and how to protect girls online. These are the issues girls are talking about now.” Girl Scouts are now asked to sign an Internet Safety Pledge, promising, among other things, “I will not bully nor will I tolerate bullying (and I will always tell a trusted adult if this is a problem).”
Tune Into Your Kids!
Certainly, schools need to pay more attention to the problem. It’s not acceptable, say Patchin and others, for educators to fail to address the bullying simply because it’s happening at home when a kid with a laptop in his bedroom is spreading rumors through Facebook. “Some schools do a very good job,” says Patchin. “Some administrators bury their heads in the sand. If there is any behavior outside of school that results in a serious disruption in school, then schools have the authority to intervene.”
Sometimes, though, students are reluctant to tell anyone about the abuse. They worry that parents may take away their cell phone or computer privileges. Often, says Scribner, principal of Nipmuc Regional High School in Upton, the educators hear about the harassment after it has escalated. “We really encourage parents to be much more aware of what’s happening and not to be afraid to call the principal,” she says. “We tend not to find out about it until it’s been happening for a long time.”
Patchin advises parents to set up a Facebook page and request their child as a “Facebook friend,” which gives them access to their child’s page as well. Many parents have never seen their child’s and are surprised to read what the son or daughter has written. “If your child doesn’t want you as a [Facebook] friend, that’s a problem,” he says. “Parents really need to stay on top of this.” Be sure to emphasize to your kids that everything they type in cyberspace has a digital footprint, adds Patchin. Nothing is truly anonymous, and firing off an e-mail out of anger can never be taken back.
In her experience conducting workshops on the issue of cyberbullying, Englander has discovered that the parents tend to be the hardest to reach. “I think parents are very intimidated. They feel their children know more about computers than they do,” she says. “The good news is this is not a technical issue. You just need to let them know your values. They don’t have your life experience to know that the actions they do today affect them tomorrow.”
Dorie Witt’s Guide to Surviving Bullies, by Brigitte Berman (Dorie Witt Books, 2009). Teen author Berman is from Dover. She also has a blog at www.doriewitt.com.
Queen Bees & Wannabees, by Rosalind Wiseman, Crown 2002. Wiseman recently updated her bestselling book with a new chapter on navigating technology in a girls’ world. It includes a sample technology contract for parents and children to sign.
On the Web
Cyberbullying Research Center – This center’s Web site offers a blog, videos and advice for teens, parents and educators.
Girl Scouts USA – This Girl Scouts Web page offers technology tips for parents and is written by a teen editorial board. Parents can sign up for a free newsletter.
Susan Flynn is a freelance writer, an editor and a mother in Beverly, MA.
First published in the Boston Parents Paper, a Dominion Parenting publication.