Social media outlets like Facebook, Twitter, and ask.fm have, along with gaming websites, become popular haunts for cyber-bullies.
Cyber-bullying is defined as any nasty or harmful electronic communication, and it is becoming more and more prevalent. One study out of The Pew research center estimates that 90% of teens will be victims of some sort of cyberbullying at one point or another. Another survey (cited recently by the NY State Assembly in a memo accompanying antibullying legislation passed last June) found that found 18% of New York high school students had been bullied on school property during the previous year, while nearly 16% had been cyberbullied through electronic communications such as email, instant messaging, and text messages. Likewise, according to a poll by the AP 21 % of students acknowledged participating in bullying activity.
Statistics aside, Cyberbullying has had sometimes tragic consequences.
Many were horrified about the reported death of a Massachusetts 15 year old who killed herself after allegedly being bullied, both on Facebook and in person, for months by other students. Massachusetts has since passed antibullying legislation. So has NJ, the state where a Rutgers freshman killed himself after his roommate live-streamed his sexual encounter with another man. The roommate has since been convicted of violating privacy laws and has been sentenced to prison.
Like those in Massachusetts and New Jersey, The New York State Senate and Assembly have passed a new Cyberbullying provision to the Dignity For All Students Act. The provision, which Governor Cuomo has said he will sign, will establish protocols dictating how schools should respond to cyberbullying, harassment, bullying and discrimination, as well as how they can develop bullying prevention strategies and work with law enforcement when appropriate.
Despite such legislation, guidelines on electronic harassment and cruelty remain murky, with schools in the throes of litigation on several issues. For example, state and federal courts are currently debating whether a student can be suspended for posting a disparaging video on YouTube and whether a principal can search a cellphone just as she or he can look in a locker or backpack. So far lower court rulings have been contradictory; the answers to these and other questions about cyberbullying remain unclear.
Meanwhile what can victims, as well as their parents, guardians, and therapists, and educators do?
Community outreach has proved to be a powerful weapon against electronic acts of hate. Recently, people who use Twitter have come together to support victims of bullying. Followers of "Anonymous" and @bullyville tweeted supportive messages to a young man who had posted anguished tweets, threatening to take his own life because he was being bullied. The spontaneous flood of positive messages--thousands in all--turned it around for him. As sentiments of hate replaced messages of support, the internet saw one less victim of cyberbullying.
While victims of bullies can seek support on line, for those caring for or working with children and teens, the road is less clear. Anyone in any way responsible for school or teen aged children should educate themselves about the cyberbully’s favorite haunts and tactics. At home parents and guardians should use spyware and monitor the social media use of kids and teens—seeing what goes on and with whom children are chatting is the best defense against electronic forms of harm. At school, teachers, counselors, and administrators should establish no tolerance policies and bully free zones—and should always cooperate with authorities whenever relevant.
If Knowledge is power, being familiar with a bully’s favorite cyberhaunts, strategies and tools can help rob the bully of at least some of his or her power to hurt—it’s not the end, but at least it’s a start.
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.