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Cyber harassment involves using an electronic medium to threaten or harm others. E-mail, chat rooms, cell phones, instant messaging, pagers, text messaging, and online voting booths are tools used to inflict humiliation, fear, and a sense of helplessness. This type of intimidation differs from traditional bullying in several important ways. Unlike the incidents that most adults recall from their youth, where the threatening party is physically bigger and more powerful than the victim, cyberbullies can be physically weaker than the persons they attempt to frighten. Cyberbullies typically hide behind the mask of anonymity that the Internet provides by using fictitious screen names. Because abusers may lack face-to-face contact with the individuals being persecuted, they may not know the level of duress that is produced by their misconduct. Therefore, they are unlikely to experience feelings of regret, sympathy, or compassion toward the victim.
Whereas bullies at school usually can be identified easily by mistreated individuals, cyberbullies typically are difficult to trace. Consequently, they can avoid responsibility for their misconduct, thereby reducing the fear of getting caught and being punished. Cyberspace represents new territory for peer mistreatment, often leaving school administrators with doubts about the boundaries of their jurisdiction. School leaders may be unable to respond when unknown parties have sent hate messages from a location outside the school, such as from a home-based computer or mobile phone.
Some students are reluctant to tell adults about the anxiety they endure at the hands of cyber enemies, fearing that parents may overreact by taking away their computer, Internet access, or cell phone. Many teenagers are unwilling to risk having their parents choose such extreme forms of protection because, without technology tools, they would feel socially isolated and less able to stay in immediate contact with their friends.
A misconception about cyber abuse is that nothing can be done about it. In reality, cyber harassment is a crime that resembles other forms of unlawful behavior and is subject to prosecution.
The University of Dayton School of Law offers numerous resources for the purpose of understanding the legal issues which are related to cyberbullying. See the web for sites regarding cyber stalking and cyber intimidation. Sites can identify agencies which are available to be contacted in order to find help in the matter of dealing with cyber mistreatment, offer guidelines which can be used for reporting abuse, and present articles explaining legal processes and penalties related to a wide range of cyber crimes.
Until recently, the victims of bullying considered their homes a place of safety, a sanctuary which they could take from abusive peers. This is no longer the case in an era of instant, electronic communications. Most students who are at the secondary school level go online soon after they return home from school. When they arrive there, some discover that they are the target of threats, rumors, and lies without knowing the identity of the persons creating fear and frustration, and most of these students don't know how to stop the damage. The following examples of adolescent cyberbullying in several countries reveal the range and complexity of the issues which are actually involved here.
Shinobu is a high school freshman in Osaka, Japan. When his gym period was over, he got dressed in what he believed was the privacy of the school changing room. However, a classmate who wanted to ridicule him for being overweight secretly used a cell phone to photograph him. Within seconds, the picture of the naked boy was sent wirelessly by instant messaging for many students to see. By the time he finished dressing and went on to his next class, he had already become a laughing stock of the school.
Sixteen-year-old Denise is a high school junior in Los Angeles, California. Denise had an argument with her boyfriend and broke up with him. The rejected young man was angry and decided that he would get even with her for having broken up with him. The devious method that he chose to use was to post Denise's contact numbers, including her e-mail address, her cell phone number, and her street address, on several sex-oriented websites and blogs.
As a result of her former boyfriend's actions, Denise was hounded for months by instant messages, prank callers, and car horns of insensitive people who drove by her house to see whether or not they could catch a glimpse of her. In this particular case, the identity of the cyberbully, her former boyfriend, was detected quickly. However, his apprehension did not eliminate the sustained sense of helplessness and embarrassment which Denise had experienced.
Donna attends eighth grade at a parochial school in Montreal, Quebec, Canada. She and her mother traveled to Toronto for a week to visit her grandmother, who was recuperating from cancer surgery. When Donna returned to school, a cyberbully circulated a rumor alleging that Donna had contracted SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) during the course of her stay in Toronto. Donna's girlfriends were scared and unwilling to be around her or even to talk over the phone. Without exception, her classmates moved away from Donna whenever she went near them.
Some cases may involve more than one bully and a single victim. Others could involve a gang of bullies that persecute multiple parties. The latter occurs when students respond to online trash polling sites. These sites, which are growing in number, invite students to identify individuals by unflattering characteristics, such as the most obese person at their school, the boys who are most likely to be gay, and the girls who have slept with the most boys. The predictable consequences for students who have been subjected to this shameful treatment are depression, hopelessness, and withdrawal.
Students are not the only people at school who are bullied. Teachers often are targets too. When students make disrespectful comments to a teacher or challenge the authority of the school to govern their behavior on campus, they usually are sent to the office, where an administrator examines the situation and determines a suitable course of disciplinary action.
Only So Far
Some sophisticated adolescent cyberbullies target schools or other institutions by releasing worms that can compromise the integrity of computers or make them unavailable. The result is often disruption leading to significant loss of time and money. The U.S. Department of Justice website, www.cybercrime.gov, lists prosecuted criminals and a summary of computer intrusion cases, including the juvenile or adult status of perpetrators, type of harm done, estimated dollar loss, target group, geography, and punishment. That list includes one hacker who directed worm-infected computers to launch a distributed denial of service attack against the Microsoft main website, causing a shutdown and making it inaccessible to the public for four hours. The hacker was 14 years old and pleaded guilty in 2004 to intentionally causing damage and attempting to disable protected computers.
What actions should be taken to reduce the scale of cyberbullying? State departments of education have begun to provide training for administrators in middle and high schools to build awareness of available options in confronting such problems. Other individuals at schools also should assume responsibility for prevention. The district's information technology staff members could be given the task of designing and delivering K-12 curriculum to acquaint students, teachers, and parents with etiquette on the Internet, methods of self-protection, and ways of responding to persecution.
A related initiative would be to help the adult public recognize that adolescents interact with technology differently than older people. Most grown-ups think of computers as practical tools that can be used to locate information and send electronic mail without the expense of postage stamps. In contrast, teenagers consider instant messaging and chat rooms to be an essential aspect of their social lives — a vital connection with peers. Chat is the number one online activity among teenagers.
Why Adults Fail
Responding to bullies online in an attempt to persuade them to stop the harassment also might seem to be a reasonable counter. Yet, student experience shows that this approach can motivate a bully to apply even more severe methods of intimidation.
Parents and teachers can follow some practical guidelines to minimize the likelihood of cyberbullying:
The site WiredSafety, http://wiredsafety.org, is an organization that provides assistance in this area. The U.S. Department of Justice, www.cybercrime.gov, offers guidelines on cyber ethics for students, parents, and teachers and identifies government contacts for reporting Internet crimes. Bill Belsey, recipient of the Canadian Prime Minister's Award for Teaching Excellence in Science, Mathematics, and Technology, maintains www.cyberbullying.ca, a website for students, parents, and the public that describes the emotional costs of cyberbullying, forms of mistreatment, and prevention strategies.
- Strom, Paris S., Strom, Robert D., Education Digest, 0013127X, Dec2005, Vol. 71, Issue 4