Today's kids have access to a variety of new media technology, including cell phones, PDAs, and computers connected to the Internet. According to a study published in the Journal of Adolescent Health, more than 80 percent of adolescents in the United States own at least one of these gadgets. They are using this technology to send text and instant messages, email, blog, chat, and access social networking websites. Kids are connecting with one another and with family, making new friends, and learning about a broad range of topics. But with no one watching, electronic freedom of expression has given rise to a new form of bullying, called cyberbullying.
What Is Cyberbullying?
Cyberbullies are children who use the Internet or another interactive digital technology to harass, humiliate, or threaten another child. A wide range of methods are used, limited only by the kids' imagination and access to technology. As kids fight back, cyberbullies often change roles with their victims, going from bully to victim and back again.
It's clear from the research that victims of cyberbullying experience psychosocial difficulties and present risk factors. Studies in the Journal of Adolescent Health (JAH) demonstrate an association between electronic aggression victimization and emotional distress (including anxiety and depression), school conduct problems, weapon-carrying at school, low connectedness between caregivers and adolescents, and sexual solicitation.
Unfortunately, cyberbullying occasionally spirals out of control, with credible threats of bodily harm or death. In extreme but rare cases, hurtful cyberbullying incidents can even lead to attempted murder or suicide. In one bizarre and well-publicized case, Lori Drew, the mother of a teenaged girl who had a falling out with 13-year-old Megan Meier, allegedly got involved with teenagers in cyberbullying Megan. Megan hanged herself at her Missouri home in October 2006, after receiving a dozen or more cruel messages. Lori Drew was indicted in May 2008 for her alleged role in the incident.
Types of Cyberbullying
StopCyberbullying.org has identified two kinds of cyberbullying: direct attacks (messages sent directly to your child) and cyberbullying by proxy (using others to attack the victim, with or without his or her knowledge). Direct attacks can take the following forms:
- Instant messages/text messages – launching a direct verbal assault.
- Blogs – posting mean, private, or false information about the victim.
- Chat rooms – posing as the victim to his friends and posting messages that are hateful, to damage the victim's reputation.
- Password theft – locking the victim out of an account; hacking into the victim's computer; posing as the victim.
- Photos – sending nude or embarrassing pictures through email and cell phones.
- Internet polls – creating a mean poll in which the victim's name is included ("Which of the following kids is the fattest?").
- Websites – creating a site to post hateful, embarrassing, or untrue information about the victim.
- Malware – sending malicious code to corrupt the victim's computer.
- Spam – sending porn and other junk email.
In the typical by-proxy attack, the cyberbully gets control of the victim's account and sends out hateful or rude messages to everyone on the victim's buddy list. Kids may also click on the Warning or Notify buttons on their IM, email, or chat screens, and alert the service provider that the victim has done something that violates the rules. If the victim receives enough warnings or notifications, the account may be closed and the parents may be notified, punishing the innocent victim.
Because cyberbullying by proxy often gets adults involved in the harassment, it can be much more dangerous. It becomes much more serious when, for example, the cyberbully posts offline or online contact information about the victim in hate group or child molester chat rooms. In cases like these, the victim has been placed in serious danger, and the police should be contacted immediately.