Cyberbullying a growing problem - Part One

11/07/05 12:00AM By Nina Keck
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(Host) Today, many teenagers keep in touch with friends and classmates using instant messaging - high speed email characterized by its own shorthand.

While many young people love the convenience, speed and anonymity of text messages, experts say there's a danger.

And that's "cyber-bullying."

As VPR's Nina Keck reports in the first of a two part series, many parents are unaware of it.

(Sound of girls giggling and typing in front of computer)

"I did."
"I thought you said he did?!"

(Keck) It's a weekend morning and 15-year-old Katherine Cohen and her friends Molly Lawrence and Julie Tordanato sit in front of a computer catching up with friends.

(Tordanato and Lawrence) "Katherine put your buddy list up so we can see who's on. Is Sean on? Is Sean on?"
"He's probably with Sean. Oh, yeah!" (laughs)

(Keck) "So you just signed on, it's a Sunday, it's 11 o'clock and there are friends of yours on?"

(Tordanato) "Yeah, some people are on all the time - 24/7, they're never off."

(Lawrence) "Yeah, they're on an away message. Like, people leave their computer on all day and all night just, like, with an away message - like sleeping or at school just because they want to get messages from other people."

(Keck) While these Vermont ninth graders say the technology is fun and convenient, they admit it can also have a darker, more sinister side.

(Cohen) "In seventh and eighth grade I definitely used to get online harassed all the time. Maybe not every day but definitely, like, a lot. And it was a couple different people."

(Keck) Katherine Cohen says that while the abuse stayed on the computer and never turned physical, it was very upsetting.

(Cohen) "But they'd be just like, 'Oh you better watch out, I'm going to hurt you or kill you' or something like that. And it's just not fun to hear 'Oh you're fat, 'Oh, you're ugly,' 'Oh, I don't like you.' 'Oh, you're too perfect, you must be so fake.' It's just not fun."

(Keck) What made the messages even more troubling, she says, is that she didn't know who was sending them. Many kids use more than one screen name and some share passwords - meaning they can sign on and pretend to be someone else. Katherine says she finally confronted her bully online.

(Cohen) "And I said, I'm going to print this conversation up and I'm going to bring it to someone, because this is bad. And she was like, well, you can't do that because I never said my name. And you can't prove who this is. You can't prove anything. So, it's a little bit scary."

(Keck) In the end, Katherine says the nasty messages just stopped coming. Had that happened today, she says she'd know better and just turn her computer off - or program it to block any future messages from the person. But in seventh grade, she says it was much more overwhelming.

Incidents like the one Katherine experienced are becoming more common. According to researchers at Clemson University 25 percent of middle school girls and 11 percent of middle school boys say they have been electronically bullied at least once in the last two months.

(Nancy Willard) "What concerns me most significantly are the emerging reports of those kids who are committing suicide or who are getting involved in school violence."

(Keck) That's Nancy Willard, Director of the Center for Safe and Responsible Internet Use. Willard says the anonymity of Internet communication means kids feel freer to do things online they would never do in the real world. And because it's difficult to positively identify electronic bulliers, there's less fear of punishment. So Willard says online abuse can be especially vicious.

John Halligan of Burlington believes unrelenting cyber-bullying is partly what pushed his 13 year-old son Ryan to commit suicide two years ago.

(Halligan) "We weren't blindsided about bullying being an issue during middle school. However, we were blindsided by how things got worse online and just how bad it actually got at school as well."

(Keck) Ryan had a computer in his bedroom and his parents say he spent a lot of time on it sending instant messages and visiting chat rooms. After the funeral, John Halligan says saved messages on his son's computer provided their family with some answers.

(Halligan) "It was the most difficult reading a parent would every have to go through. The first thing I found out is that my own son was signing on with multiple screen names. And for the life of me I didn't understand why until I talked with other parents who went home and checked their computers and found the same behavior among their children. I guess in a lot of ways it's very empowering for someone to take on different personas online and pretend to be people they're not."

(Keck) John Halligan says what surprised him, however, was that when he went online using his son's user name kids began to talk to him.

(Halligan) "Basically telling me, 'You know, Mr. Halligan, there's a lot you don't know that happened .'"

(Keck) Ryan had shared some very private information about a physical exam he'd had to take. John Halligan says the information got twisted and sent electronically around to classmates.

(Halligan) "Because Ryan had this medical procedure done to him by a doctor it meant that Ryan was gay. One kid described it as a feeding frenzy -- even kids who didn't normally bully kind of piled on Ryan at school that day."

(Keck) Halligan says cyber-bullying probably wasn't the only reason for his son's suicide, but he says Ryan's death should serve as a wake up call for families everywhere. Pay more attention to what your kids are doing online, he says. Make sure the computer is in a public place, not a bedroom or back office. And he says it's important to talk to your kids about the Internet.

Nancy Willard of the Center for Safe and Responsible Internet Use says parents should also be more proactive about checking computer files.

(Willard) "Finding out where your child has registered, find out what your child has posted in his or her profile, what your child is posting online. These are all public places. Now your child may say, 'Oh, you can't invade my privacy.' But guess what? This is public information and they're posting it for the world to see. Certainly you as a parent ought to be able to look at it."

(Keck) For parents who don't know how to do this, Willard suggests asking for help at a local computer store. She's also written a parent's guide that's available on her Web site. If a family is really worried, she says software is available that enables parents to more closely monitor a child's activities on the net.

(Willard) "There are concerns about that because they impact on trust issues. But if your child has violated your trust then it might be appropriate to use those kinds of technologies and tell them, 'You know, I'm not going to look all the time, but if I have a reasonable suspicion that you're doing something inappropriate, then I am going to look.'"

(Keck) Willard says kids also need to be part of the solution. Most young people, she says, use the Internet responsibly. But it is their world and when she gives talks to middle and high school students she always makes a point of asking them, what kind of world do they want? If kids witness cruelty or online bullying, she says they can't be silent bystanders.

For Vermont Public Radio, I'm Nina Keck.

Part Two: Cell phones have risks
Center for Safe and Responsible Internet Use
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