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Section 26
Why Adults Fail to Stop Cyberbullies

Question 26 | Answer Booklet | Table of Contents | Printable Page

Cyber harassment involves using an electronic medium to threaten or harm others. E-mail, chat rooms, cell phones, instant messaging, pagers, text messaging, and online voting booths are tools used to inflict humiliation, fear, and a sense of helplessness. This type of intimidation differs from traditional bullying in several important ways.  Unlike the incidents that most adults recall from their youth, where the threatening party is physically bigger and more powerful than the victim, cyberbullies can be physically weaker than the persons they attempt to frighten. Cyberbullies typically hide behind the mask of anonymity that the Internet provides by using fictitious screen names.  Because abusers may lack face-to-face contact with the individuals being persecuted, they may not know the level of duress that is produced by their misconduct. Therefore, they are unlikely to experience feelings of regret, sympathy, or compassion toward the victim.

More Damaging
Harmful messages intended to undermine the reputation of a victim can be far more damaging than face-to-face altercations. Instead of remaining a private matter or event known by only a small group, text or photographs can be communicated to a large audience in a short time.

Whereas bullies at school usually can be identified easily by mistreated individuals, cyberbullies typically are difficult to trace. Consequently, they can avoid responsibility for their misconduct, thereby reducing the fear of getting caught and being punished.  Cyberspace represents new territory for peer mistreatment, often leaving school administrators with doubts about the boundaries of their jurisdiction. School leaders may be unable to respond when unknown parties have sent hate messages from a location outside the school, such as from a home-based computer or mobile phone.

Some students are reluctant to tell adults about the anxiety they endure at the hands of cyber enemies, fearing that parents may overreact by taking away their computer, Internet access, or cell phone. Many teenagers are unwilling to risk having their parents choose such extreme forms of protection because, without technology tools, they would feel socially isolated and less able to stay in immediate contact with their friends.

A misconception about cyber abuse is that nothing can be done about it. In reality, cyber harassment is a crime that resembles other forms of unlawful behavior and is subject to prosecution.

The University of Dayton School of Law offers numerous resources for the purpose of understanding the legal issues which are related to cyberbullying. See the web for sites regarding cyber stalking and cyber intimidation. Sites can identify agencies which are available to be contacted in order to find help in the matter of dealing with cyber mistreatment, offer guidelines which can be used for reporting abuse, and present articles explaining legal processes and penalties related to a wide range of cyber crimes.

Until recently, the victims of bullying considered their homes a place of safety, a sanctuary which they could take from abusive peers. This is no longer the case in an era of instant, electronic communications.  Most students who are at the secondary school level go online soon after they return home from school. When they arrive there, some discover that they are the target of threats, rumors, and lies without knowing the identity of the persons creating fear and frustration, and most of these students don't know how to stop the damage. The following examples of adolescent cyberbullying in several countries reveal the range and complexity of the issues which are actually involved here.

Shinobu is a high school freshman in Osaka, Japan. When his gym period was over, he got dressed in what he believed was the privacy of the school changing room. However, a classmate who wanted to ridicule him for being overweight secretly used a cell phone to photograph him. Within seconds, the picture of the naked boy was sent wirelessly by instant messaging for many students to see. By the time he finished dressing and went on to his next class, he had already become a laughing stock of the school.

Sixteen-year-old Denise is a high school junior in Los Angeles, California. Denise had an argument with her boyfriend and broke up with him. The rejected young man was angry and decided that he would get even with her for having broken up with him. The devious method that he chose to use was to post Denise's contact numbers, including her e-mail address, her cell phone number, and her street address, on several sex-oriented websites and blogs.

As a result of her former boyfriend's actions, Denise was hounded for months by instant messages, prank callers, and car horns of insensitive people who drove by her house to see whether or not they could catch a glimpse of her. In this particular case, the identity of the cyberbully, her former boyfriend, was detected quickly. However, his apprehension did not eliminate the sustained sense of helplessness and embarrassment which Denise had experienced.

Often Jealousy
Jealousy is a common motive for cyber abuse. Fourteen-year-old Amy lives in Montgomery, Alabama. She is enrolled in a home school curriculum and plans to earn a high school diploma by the time she has reached the age of 16 so she can start college early. Darin, a neighbor who attends public school, is Amy's friend. His girlfriend began sending Amy e-mail messages threatening to cut herself if Amy did not stop talking to Darin.  The guilt that someone might do herself bodily harm because of her led Amy to tell Darin about the e-mails. Darin confessed that his girlfriend had cut herself once before. Amy wanted to do the right thing, but she did not know who to contact. She told her mother, and the police were called to investigate the matter.

Donna attends eighth grade at a parochial school in Montreal, Quebec, Canada. She and her mother traveled to Toronto for a week to visit her grandmother, who was recuperating from cancer surgery. When Donna returned to school, a cyberbully circulated a rumor alleging that Donna had contracted SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) during the course of her stay in Toronto. Donna's girlfriends were scared and unwilling to be around her or even to talk over the phone. Without exception, her classmates moved away from Donna whenever she went near them.

Some cases may involve more than one bully and a single victim. Others could involve a gang of bullies that persecute multiple parties. The latter occurs when students respond to online trash polling sites.  These sites, which are growing in number, invite students to identify individuals by unflattering characteristics, such as the most obese person at their school, the boys who are most likely to be gay, and the girls who have slept with the most boys. The predictable consequences for students who have been subjected to this shameful treatment are depression, hopelessness, and withdrawal.

Students are not the only people at school who are bullied. Teachers often are targets too. When students make disrespectful comments to a teacher or challenge the authority of the school to govern their behavior on campus, they usually are sent to the office, where an administrator examines the situation and determines a suitable course of disciplinary action.

Only So Far
The limitations of this type of practice for use in preventing student harassment of faculty members are illustrated by the experience of Joseph, a high school teacher in Phoenix, Arizona. He offered computer classes to juniors and seniors and consistently received high ratings from students for his instruction. He was known for preparing students to obtain a good-paying job immediately after graduation.  Joseph felt disappointment and shock when told of a website on which he was the focus of messages on "What I hate about my teacher, Mr…." The site contained statements that Joseph recognized as characteristic of a particular student and comments he recalled saying to the student. Joseph related, "I taught this young man how to apply a technological tool for constructive purposes, and he decided to use it against me."

Some sophisticated adolescent cyberbullies target schools or other institutions by releasing worms that can compromise the integrity of computers or make them unavailable. The result is often disruption leading to significant loss of time and money.  The U.S. Department of Justice website, www.cybercrime.gov, lists prosecuted criminals and a summary of computer intrusion cases, including the juvenile or adult status of perpetrators, type of harm done, estimated dollar loss, target group, geography, and punishment.  That list includes one hacker who directed worm-infected computers to launch a distributed denial of service attack against the Microsoft main website, causing a shutdown and making it inaccessible to the public for four hours. The hacker was 14 years old and pleaded guilty in 2004 to intentionally causing damage and attempting to disable protected computers.

What actions should be taken to reduce the scale of cyberbullying? State departments of education have begun to provide training for administrators in middle and high schools to build awareness of available options in confronting such problems.  Other individuals at schools also should assume responsibility for prevention. The district's information technology staff members could be given the task of designing and delivering K-12 curriculum to acquaint students, teachers, and parents with etiquette on the Internet, methods of self-protection, and ways of responding to persecution.

A related initiative would be to help the adult public recognize that adolescents interact with technology differently than older people. Most grown-ups think of computers as practical tools that can be used to locate information and send electronic mail without the expense of postage stamps. In contrast, teenagers consider instant messaging and chat rooms to be an essential aspect of their social lives — a vital connection with peers. Chat is the number one online activity among teenagers.

Why Adults Fail
These generational differences account for why few adults are able to provide wise counsel on dealing with cyberbullies. The solutions most often proposed are simplistic and result in minimal protection. For example, purchasing and setting online filters would appear to be suitable solutions, because these preventive measures block reception of unwanted messages. However, by altering their screen names, bullies can override these obstructions easily.

Responding to bullies online in an attempt to persuade them to stop the harassment also might seem to be a reasonable counter. Yet, student experience shows that this approach can motivate a bully to apply even more severe methods of intimidation.

Parents and teachers can follow some practical guidelines to minimize the likelihood of cyberbullying:

  • Adults should develop close communications with adolescents and encourage them to relate problems such as episodes of digital harassment.
  • Students should be told not to share personal information, such as their e-mail password, with anyone except a parent.
  • Students, parents, educators, and law enforcement personnel should know where to go for information about online abuses, such as cyber intimidation, con artists, identity thieves, predators, stalkers, criminal hackers, financial fraud, security, and privacy problems.

The site WiredSafety, http://wiredsafety.org, is an organization that provides assistance in this area. The U.S. Department of Justice, www.cybercrime.gov, offers guidelines on cyber ethics for students, parents, and teachers and identifies government contacts for reporting Internet crimes. Bill Belsey, recipient of the Canadian Prime Minister's Award for Teaching Excellence in Science, Mathematics, and Technology, maintains www.cyberbullying.ca, a website for students, parents, and the public that describes the emotional costs of cyberbullying, forms of mistreatment, and prevention strategies.

  • Adults should ensure that students realize that people may not be who they say they are in a chat room. For example, someone could claim to be a 14-year-old female, but in actuality be a 50-year-old male predator seeking to take advantage of a vulnerable adolescent.
  • Teenagers should never agree to meet someone they have chatted with online unless their parents go with them and the meeting is in a public place.
  • People should avoid sending impulse messages or staying online when they are angry. Wait until self-control and a sense of calm is restored so that the message is more sensibly written and excludes hostility. People typically regret sending a "flame" (angry) message that could motivate someone to become a cyberbully as an act of revenge for it. Keep in mind that messages written in capital letters are interpreted as shouting by some recipients.
  • When adolescents tell teachers or parents about cyber harassment, the cooperating adults should immediately inform the police and the Internet instant messaging or mobile phone service provider.
  • Victims never should respond to cyberbullies, but always should keep messages as evidence, including the text and source of information detailing the originating address of the e-mail. Whether or not they are read, messages should not be erased. The police, the Internet service provider, or the telephone company often can use the narratives for tracking purposes.
  • Those who are persecuted might notice words used by certain people they know. Most cyberbullies who post anonymous messages are not as anonymous as they may think. If a legitimate threat exists, law enforcement officials can subpoena records of all web users for a particular website. From there, users can be tracked to their individual computers.
Cyberbullying is of such recent origin that current understanding is limited. Many parents misinterpret adolescents' time on the Internet as learning rather than considering that it might be related to peer abuse.  This preliminary assessment hopes to begin conversations and encourage studies on ways to confront this new form of abuse. Some challenges include the identification of cyberbullies, encouragement for victims to report abuse, access to counseling for those who suffer persecution, curriculum to guide civil behavior online, rehabilitation programs to help dysfunctional youngsters, parent education to improve their monitoring and guidance functions, and the linkage of institutions for cooperation across jurisdictions.
- Strom, Paris S., Strom, Robert D., Education Digest, 0013127X, Dec2005, Vol. 71, Issue 4
The article above contains foundational information. Articles below contain optional updates.

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Personal Reflection Exercise #12
The preceding section contained information about when teens turn cyberbullies.  Write three case study examples regarding how you might use the content of this section in your practice.

QUESTION 26
Why are some students reluctant to tell adults about the anxiety they endure at the hands of cyber enemies? Record the letter of the correct answer the Answer Booklet.


Answer Booklet for this course
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The article above contains foundational information. Articles below contain optional updates.
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