When online harassment turns dangerous -- or even deadly
To this day, Debra Johnston doesn't know how her son became a target. "Jeffrey was popular," she says. "He was admired." An honor student at Trafalgar Middle School, in Cape Coral, Florida, Jeffrey worked as an office aide and even led a group of students in designing their own computer game. So maybe it was jealousy that prompted the barrage of malicious e-mail messages and Web site postings about Jeffrey from fellow students.
Whatever the cause, this online harassment -- known as cyberbullying -- had a deadly effect. Sometime before dawn on June 29, 2005, the 15-year-old eighth grader hanged himself.
Though children have always bullied each other, cell phones and the Internet have brought a new dimension to the problem. Bullies can reach their victims wherever they go, any time of day or night. And they can harass anonymously. "They have this feeling of power, of not being touched," says Debra Johnston. "It pushes kids to do things they would not normally do."
While Jeffrey's case is extreme, surveys show that cyberbullying is widespread and on the rise, with serious consequences. An estimated one in three teenagers has been a target of cyberbullying, according to a 2007 report from the Pew Internet and American Life Project. And the problem seems to be growing. The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) found that the number of Internet users age 10 to 17 who had been harassed online had increased by 50 percent in five years.But schools, telecommunications providers, and law enforcement are just beginning to respond, and many parents are barely awake to the problem.
Bullies thriving online
Cyberbullying is generally defined as using the Internet to harass or bully someone. According to the National Crime Prevention Council, it includes sending cruel or threatening e-mails, instant messages, or text messages sent to cell phones. It can involve tricking someone into divulging personal or potentially humiliating information and then sending it to other people online. It can also mean breaking into someone's e-mail and sending out hateful or false information while posing as that person, blocking e-mails or instant messages from a classmate for no reason, or creating a Web site to ridicule classmates, teachers, or other people.
"We found that it's quite prevalent," said Robin Kowalski, PhD, a psychologist at Clemson University in South Carolina, whose department conducted its own survey about cyberbullying. Bullying goes wherever kids go, and kids are spending more and more time on the Internet. Cyberbullies haunt chat rooms, bulletin boards, listservs, regular e-mail, file-sharing sites, text messages, independent Web sites, and online games -- in short, anywhere that communication takes place. Not only are computers and Internet access coming down in price, but new online activities are attracting kids. "Right now a lot of it is instant messaging," said Kowalski, "but social networks are starting to creep up."
An increasingly common form of cyberbullying is "hate pages" posted on the Web, particularly through MySpace, Friendster, Facebook, and other social networking sites. Sometimes the bully will host a mock contest for the ugliest or fattest kid in the school, inviting nominations, votes, and comments from peers.
The targets don't take the bullying lightly. The youths in the NCMEC survey said 30 percent of the harassment incidents were extremely upsetting, 22 percent were embarrassing, and 24 percent were frightening. "It can cause eating disorders, chronic illness, depression, delinquency, and suicidal ideation," said Sameer Hinduja, PhD, a criminologist at Florida Atlantic University. "We know of at least three people who killed themselves because they were cyberbullied."
The anonymity of the Internet provides a kind of cover so that people who wouldn't bully anyone face-to-face may feel safer doing it online. "I think it's resulting in more bullying overall," said Hinduja. "If I say something hurtful to you in person, my words would be tempered because I can see your face fall." There may also be a "Revenge of the Nerds" phenomenon at work, he added. "It's possible those people who are physically small and are not socially adept will try to turn the tables on those who are bullying them in the real world."
In a survey of 3,700 middle-schoolers, Kowalski found that 18 percent had experienced cyberbullying in the last two months, and the problem was more likely among girls than among boys. She attributed that to the different ways that cruelty manifests itself in the two sexes. "Boys are more likely to engage in direct aggression," she said. "Girls are more likely to be indirect: back-stabbing, gossip, social exclusion." The Internet and cell phones, which are both primarily verbal media, lend themselves to the type of bullying that girls are more likely to do.
In more severe cases, bullies lure their victims into sharing private information online, either by stealing the screen name of someone the victim trusts or simply by feigning friendship. Then they make the information public. That was the fate of 12-year-old Ryan Halligan, a Vermont seventh grader who in 2003 also committed suicide under the strain of cyberbullying. A girl pretended to like him, then shared his online wooing with her friends. A boy pretended to befriend him, then spread false rumors about his sexual orientation.
A heart that will never heal
His father, John Halligan, writes that Ryan's death has left "a huge hole in my heart that will never heal." A member of the anti-bullying movement, Halligan advises parents to hold schools accountable for such harassment -- and to become familiar with the dangers of online bullying. "Back in the telephone age, you would have to share the earpiece with someone to share what someone else was saying," says Halligan. "When you are communicating electronically, you are creating documents. You may have erased them on your computer, but you don't know what has happened on someone else's computer."
Cyberbullies also gang up on other players in online games. Such "griefers," as they are known in the gaming world, may carry their bullying into a kind of vandalism. Jeffrey Johnston's tormentor hacked into a Web site that hosted the game he and his friends had invented. They destroyed the game and replaced it with a hate page maligning him.
Many kids, and even some parents, appear to be unaware of the damage these pranks cause. In an online survey by Hinduja, the Florida criminologist, half the respondents said that cyberbullying is "done in fun." Almost a quarter said that victims learn from the experience, and 13 percent agreed that it "makes victims strong."
"I believe this country is becoming oversensitized," said the father of the boy Debra Johnston accuses of helping hound her son to death. "Kids are kids; they pick on each other, and all these things are now classified as cyberbullying. I really didn't see anything that would cause a normal person to commit suicide." He added that other kids, not his son, were guilty of the most vicious attacks on Jeffrey.
Debra Johnston is impatient with this "kids will be kids" attitude about cyberbullying. "It's no more a normal part of growing up than beating is a normal part of marriage," she said. Still struggling to forgive herself, as she puts it, for being unable to protect the son she loved so deeply, she has campaigned around the country in favor of laws that would give schools more options to respond to online bullying.
The legislation is necessary, she argues, because many schools fear they are overstepping their authority if they respond to actions taken outside of school grounds. Under current law in most states, schools are obliged to act only if the bullying takes place at school, disrupts school activities, or poses a credible threat to someone connected with the school, said Parry Aftab, JD, a New York attorney who specializes in cyberbullying. She recommends that schools educate students about cyberbullying and ask all parents to sign an "acceptable use" policy that gives the schools the right to discipline students for cyberbullying, even when the communication takes place off school property.
Some schools are taking preventive action, inviting in organizations like Bullysafe USA, which help children recognize and stamp out bullying and hurtful behavior. In antibullying workshops in Cape Coral, Florida, for example, students and teachers often cry while apologizing to each other, according to reports in the local newspaper. Afterwards, school officials say, children are more aware of the damage done by cruel and heedless words.
Parents fighting back
Even with antibullying policies in place, however, parents and kids must take their own action to prevent cyberbullying, Aftab says. Children can protect themselves by not disclosing any private thoughts or sensitive information through the Internet. They can also avoid conflict by refraining from sending angry, spiteful, or unpleasant messages of their own.
Parents can help to head off cyberbullying by talking frankly to their children about the dangers and responsibilities of Internet use. They can also keep close track of what their kids are doing on the Internet by restricting computer use to shared spaces in the home, by installing software that blocks access to certain sites or monitors what their kids do on the computer, or simply by reading the "history" window in the child's browser. Parents can also do Internet searches using their children's names to see if anything malicious has been posted about them.
When kids do become victims of bullying, they should not retaliate, says Nancy Willard, MS, JD, executive director of the Center for Safe and Responsible Internet Use in Eugene, Oregon.
"Young people need to really understand that sometimes you start with tit for tat and it grows," she said. She also warned against canceling kids' computer or Internet privileges altogether, since this may make the kids reluctant to admit they're having a problem.
Instead, Aftab recommends, parents should make copies of all the offending communication and work with adults to make sure it stops.
If the bullying constitutes a threat of physical violence, parents should go straight to the police. "It has to be acted on immediately," says Aftab. If the harassment is more moderate, she says, parents or teenagers should confront the person responsible by phone or in person. Sometimes what seemed to be bullying will turn out to be simple miscommunication or the work of an imposter. "So you pick up the phone and say, 'Did you send this? Did you know that it really hurt my feelings?'"
If the problem persists, parents and kids can work with Web hosts and telecommunications providers. Senders can be blocked, "buddies" deleted, sites taken down. Many Internet service providers, online games, and social networks have complaint procedures. To help parents and kids work with the various institutions, Aftab offers the services of a team of 12,000 volunteers she has recruited through her organization Stop Cyberbullying (www.stopcyberbullying.org).
If these measures and complaints to school officials all fail, parents can consider legal action. Cyberbullies may be liable for defamation, invasion of privacy, public disclosure of private facts, false light (presenting someone in an inaccurate way), and intentional infliction of emotional stress, says Willard. "Parents can be held responsible for the liable activities of their children, regardless of whether they knew what their kids were doing." Using the law doesn't necessarily mean mortgaging the house to pay a lawyer, either. A threatening letter from an attorney may end the problem. In some states, it may also be possible to file suit in small claims court, which can be done without an attorney.
Looking back, Debra Johnston wishes her family had known such avenues were available to stop cyberbullying. "Everyone was telling us it wasn't against the law."
But even more than encouraging other parents to use legal means, she'd like to see cyberbullies get therapy. "These are people in crisis," she said. "They need help."
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National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. Online victimization of youth: five years later. 2006.
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Clemson University. Youth Development & Families. Technology takes bullying into cyberspace. Impacts Magazine. Fall 2005.
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