Cyber Bullying: No Muscles Needed
When "Chad," a 7th grader, found out his old girlfriend was dissing his new flame, he wasted no time. Chad headed straight for the computer, and sent Instant Messages threatening to kill his old girlfriend to an extensive buddy list. Several "buddies" freaked and told their parents, who called the school, which contacted the police. Ultimately, Chad was banished to another middle school and went to juvenile court, where a judge sentenced him to 25 hours of community service. Unfortunately, about the only unusual thing about this story is that Chad got caught and was held legally responsible.
I-Safe America, an organization promoting Web safety, surveyed 1500 students in 4th through 8th grade, and found that 42 percent have been bullied online. And 53 percent admitted to saying something mean or hurtful to someone else online. Adolescent impulses frequently find release through computers, multi-use cell phones and PDAs. Often, there's no time for reflection—questionable messages go rocketing off to as many names as you can cram into a contact list. Unlike Chad, most teens who IM or chat stay on the safe side of the law. This doesn't necessarily preclude mischief, as 14-year-old "Amber" admits. "Sometimes, I'll make up a fake screen name to scare people I don't like—like 'Robsucks89.'"
A Dangerous Mix
Instant gratification and technology are a dangerous mix. Nancy Willard, director of the Center for Safe and Responsible Internet Use, says "Sometimes kids think it's okay to be cruel online and that this is the social norm in some online communities. Parents should expect their child to follow the family rule—'be kind to others'—off-line and on." (The Center's Web site lists a variety of cyber bullying tactics.) Mark Franek, dean of students at the William Penn School in Philadelphia, thinks schools need to do a better job in educating kids in intelligent use of new technology. At Penn, says Franek, "teachers emphasize that cyberspace is an extension of our community, 24/7—the school community doesn't begin and end at the door." Besides including detailed computer protocol in the school's handbook, Penn administrators brought in police detectives, who alerted kids that electronic messages such as IM's and emails leave "fingerprints"—nine-digit numbers recorded with your ISP (Internet Service Provider). Violations of the school's honor code land a student in front of the community council, leading to suspension or expulsion. But small things can tweak a student's conscience. For example, the school's director of technology put a mirror up in the lab, bearing the caption "Are you a cyber bully?," with action steps for kids who think they're victims as well.
Why Cyber Bullying Tempts—and Can Return to Bite You
Bullying involves a power play: trying to make someone else feel weak and helpless, while inflating your own value. Online bullying is particularly tempting, since anyone with access to a computer can play. Some reasons it's on the rise:
- The illusion of anonymity. Most kids say or do things on a computer that they wouldn't have the nerve to do in person.
- The number of kids using the Internet makes it the preferred way to communicate. The Pew Internet & American Life Project reports that approximately 17 million kids aged 12 to 17 use the Internet. Teens have embraced IM—74 percent of teens IM, compared to only 44 percent of adults.
- It's easy to disguise your identity and pose as someone else. For example, anyone can get a Web based e-mail account with an ISP, make up a screen name and post comments with little consequence.
Voted Off the 6th Grade Island?Deborah Lane, Principal of Oak View Elementary School in Fairfax County, Virginia, is well aware of how an online bully can wreck the educational environment for an entire school. One of Oak View's students decided to do a survey on the top five "hated kids" in the 6th grade. In a twist on American Idol, he set up a Web site where kids could vote for their least favorites. The parents of one "loser" appeared at school, telling Lane their daughter refused to attend school. (She did return later.) The cyber bully's parents had no idea he was running a reverse popularity contest, and parents of the other victims didn't want to involve the police. Lane decided to sponsor an in-school program on the damage online harassment can cause, as well as what parents could do to prevent this behavior.
Technology to the RescueOne expert Lane invited to Oak View was Brian Zwit, head of Integrity Assurance for America Online. Zwit admits that technology can tempt kids to overstep bounds. For example, CNN and MSNBC's sites allow "instant polling". A user can set up a poll on whatever topic he chooses—including the biggest nerd in the school band—and send results to the whole school, via listserv. However, technology can also rein in some obnoxious online behavior. All of the major Internet Service Providers offer some form of parental controls. AOL has developed "AOL Guardian," which reports who their kids exchange messages with and what Web sites they visit, monitored chat rooms for kids 13 and under, and an IM "safe list," restricting people with whom a child can talk. Yahoo's "parental controls" package allows parents to set different limits for each child using the Internet. There are four levels available: one for kids 12 and under, one for teens 13-15, one for "mature teens" 16-17, and a "full access" option with no restrictions. Yahoo offers a weekly "report card" of a child's online activities during the prior week. Microsoft's "content advisor" prevents kids from viewing inappropriate content and lets parents set up an "approved" group of Web addresses. There's a "restricted zone" of forbidden sites. "Client filtering" prevents kids from playing specific Internet games and restricts Web surfing time. Of course, technology can only do so much. "We tell parents you wouldn't send your child out into the neighborhood without restrictions on where he could/couldn't go. It's the same thing with the Internet—you really need rules and guidance," says Zwit. Kids who know parents are shadowing their online adventures tend to be more cautious.
Action Steps for Parents and Schools:Although pigs probably WILL fly before parents are more comfortable with technology than their kids, there definitely are things parents can do:
- Let kids know what behavior you find unacceptable. Ask how THEY would feel if someone called them obese, stupid, or a loser.
- Ask for your child's help in becoming cyber savvy, suggests Detective Ray Kuter of the Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force in Montgomery County. "Ask your child to show you how to do something online. It makes the kid feel good, and you'll learn more about their level of sophistication."
- Learn what controls are available through your Internet Service Provider. If you're not satisfied, you can switch providers or purchase software to accomplish the same end.
- Have consequences in place if your kids violate family rules on Internet use, especially cyber bullying.
- Keep computers in a public room in your home, Nelson and many others recommend.
- Look for signs that your child might be a victim, says Kuter. These could include nightmares, school avoidance, or a sudden disinterest in the computer. Block messages from bullies or save evidence and try to identify the bully. Notify the school and, if there are threats or harassment, the police department
- Consider enrolling in a course to bring yourself up to speed on computer use.
- Encourage your school district to develop a clear, comprehensive policy on acceptable computer use, both on and off school property. The policy should spell out what constitutes cyber bullying, and list consequences.
- Establish a relationship with your local police department, perhaps inviting "cyber cops" to your school to speak to parents and kids on proper Internet use.
- Make sure ethics is included in any computer instruction given at your school.
- As Franek points out, you must work hand in hand with parents. Let them know what your "acceptable use" policy is and highlight changes from year to year.