When Brian, * 15, began habitually complaining that he was too sick to attend school or see friends, his step mother insisted he tell her what was going on. The news was troubling: someone had made an “I hate Brian” Facebook page. Worse yet, others had “liked” the page by clicking on its tiny “thumb’s-up” icon—a shocking array of cruelty, dealt out in serial fashion by scores of self-professed Brian-haters.
While Brian’s case is extreme, it underscores how bullies have changed in recent years. Once on the fringe, bullies were stereotypically the unpopular loners, known for using brute force to push others around. Not anymore. Today’s bullies are often more mainstream. And instead of kicking sand in someone’s face they are more likely to employ screen and keyboard than physical force to inflict their brand of torture.
Wireless phones and access to the internet allow teenaged bullies to post snarky messages and download photos on social media sites, and make it easy to forward electronic insults and compromising photos through groups of friends, classes, and neighboring towns at lightning speed. Reputations are sullied in the time it takes to hit “send.”
Parents, guardians, and school personnel cannot stop every cyber-bully, but they can fight back by educating themselves about electronically inflicted forms of cruelty and by familiarizing themselves with sites that have become tools of choice for the new breed of tech savvy bullies:
Facebook: billions of people use this site to post electronic messages and photos on personal walls and pages. Many use it to keep in touch (“hey guys, here are photos of my 30th high school reunion!”), and for marketing businesses. But the social media powerhouse has also provided a forum for group name calling, and has become a place where some post intimate revelations--meaning users can come across shocking and upsetting information under seemingly callous circumstances. One woman reportedly learned of a relative’s death by reading a posting about it. And some teens have logged on to find they have been dumped by boyfriends and girlfriends—sometimes the image of a new paramour smiling arm in arm with the ex heralds this type of unwelcome news. And even if they haven’t happened upon tragic or devastating photos, some have reported coming across evidence of gatherings from which they had been intentionally excluded. Used to be if you weren’t invited to a party you might not know about it. But the advent of Facebook means you are likely to get a minute by minute snapshot of all sorts of goings on—even those conducted in private.
In a darker turn, Facebook’s was allegedly misused by a group of Massachusetts teens who were said to have posted defamatory and harmful comments about a girl at school who, according to media reports, hung herself after being bullied on the site and at school. The state passed anti-bullying legislation after this tragic incident.
Instagram: like Facebook, allows people to connect with one another via electronic channels, though this site is used for downloading and publicly displaying photos. It has, according to media reports, been implicated in several cyber-bullying instances. Just this month police began investigating photos of six Colorado students that were tagged with abusive language. Those who posted the defamatory comments could be charged with a felony.
Instagram’s pages allow users to chronicle their every activity—in other words: they provide a forum in which hapless adolescents can routinely click on and view gatherings and parties from which they have been excluded. Recently one pre-adolescent girl reportedly logged on to see 14 of her “friends” beaming at the camera. While happening upon this type of group photo seems harmless, the teen in this case was crushed to learn she had been the odd girl out, the only one of her Girl Scout troop intentionally left out of several recent parties. Though she found the community service activities rewarding, she resigned the group.
Twitter is another form of electronic communication and means of social connection that has become hugely popular with teens and even younger children. Individuals post messages in 140 character bursts. Teens have reported using the service to send harsh missives—and all in a public forum before all of their followers. Some have even acknowledged sending hate messages via the service. Celebrities have famously fought public wars of words in the Twitterverse, as well.
YouTube is a popular site used by individuals wishing to download film clips. Recently offerings have included videos of kids being beaten by peers and of a bus driver being bullied by students--some such showings of violence received so many hits they went viral almost instantly. I will refrain from the obvious commentary on what such viewing of violence portends for our society. But, Bottom line: YouTube has, according to media reports, become a much used tool for those who want to humiliate others by showing them in unfavorable light, even as it has also been used by those wishing to showcase their talents or raise money for charitable purposes.
i-chat: this method of electronic communication gained notoriety when it was revealed to be the method of choice in the tragic case of New Jersey college freshman who was filmed by a roommate who then used the technology to live-stream his private and intimate sexual encounters with another man. The subject of the video felt so violated and became so distraught, according to reports, he committed suicide. His roommate was convicted of multiple crimes including invasion of privacy, and hate crimes, and was sentenced to prison. After the suicide NJ passed its own tough anti-bullying legislation.
Sexting: as previously mentioned, this is the act of sending naked and compromising photos or verbal communications by text—and it is an activity which has increased in prevalence. Some preteen and teen girls have sent naked photos of themselves because they believed this would help them become popular with boys. Such communications are easily forwarded by ill wishers--they can and have reached entire towns in minutes, damaging reputations and inflicting emotional pain and humiliation on victims for years to come.
Ask.fm: is another interactive site that has become hugely popular among teens who visit to ask anonymous questions of one another. Due to the site’s anonymity, it has come to be used abusively by many, according to media reports. Recent posts included: “are you gay? You look gay” and “are you bi?” as well as: “Your girlfriend is disgusting,” and “I’m gonna beat you with barbed wire.” Hate messages such as “you are fat,” and “why don’t you just kill yourself already?” “Nobody cares!” were posted to the page of one Florida teen who allegedly took her own life after being tormented for months on the site. Though she had friends and a boyfriend, it was reported that she had received so many nasty comments, and could not take the bullying any longer, so she hung herself.
While it has been the recent instances of tragic school shootings and the issue of gun control that have recently commanded our attention, the consequences of cyber-bullying and electronic cruelty have been no less deadly in some cases. More needs to be done to stop cyber-bullies in their tracks.
*not his real name
Stephanie Newman, Ph.D., is the author of Mad Men on the Couch: Analyzing the Minds of the Men and Women of the Hit TV Show, which can be purchased fromBarnes & Noble, Indie Bound, andAmazon.