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How can cyberbullies be stopped?

The episodes are hurtful, ugly -- and sometimes deadly. In Lakeland, Fla., a group of teenagers records the beating of another teen. The local sheriff says the attack was in retaliation for online trash-talking by the victim.

At a high school near Pittsburgh, an anonymous e-mail list features sexually explicit rankings of 25 female students, names and photos included.

In suburban Dardenne Prairie, Mo., near St. Louis, 13-year-old Megan Meier hangs herself after receiving cruel messages on the social-networking site MySpace.

In Essex Junction, Vt., 13-year-old Ryan Patrick Halligan kills himself after months of harassment, including instant messages calling him gay.

The cases, albeit extreme, highlight what school officials, child psychologists, legal experts and government researchers argue is a fast-spreading epidemic of "cyberbullying" -- the use of the Internet, cell phones and other digital technology to harass, intimidate, threaten, mock and defame.

Studies show cyberbullying affects millions of adolescents and young adults. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention last year labeled "electronic aggression" -- its term for cyberbullying -- an emerging public-health problem.

A reliable profile of cyberbullying, a relatively new phenomenon, is difficult to construct. Studies leave little doubt, however, that cyberbullying is growing.

Some cyberbullies are angry loners, sometimes seeking revenge for having been bullied themselves. But experts say it is common for online abusers to be popular students who are trying to strengthen their place in the social hierarchy.

"It's not really the schoolyard thug character" in some cases, said Nancy Willard, executive director of the Center for Safe and Responsible Internet Use, a research and professional development organization in Eugene, Ore. "It's the in-crowd kids bullying those who don't rank high enough."

What fuels cyberbullying is "status in schools -- popularity, hierarchies, who's cool, who's not," said Danah Boyd, a fellow at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard Law School who studies teens' behavior on MySpace, Facebook and other social-networking sites.

Of course, bullying itself is nothing new. What's new is the technology.

More than 90 percent of teens are online. More than half of online teens have profiles on social-networking sites.

The sites allow people to post personal facts, photos, gossip and other information for others to read. Social scientists say such sites can serve a useful, and even vital, purpose by helping adolescents build friendships, learn tolerance for others' views and form a sense of self-identity. But critics say the sites have the potential to be incubators for abuse, magnets for sexual predators and embarrassing archives of a student's immature behavior that college admissions officials or employers may wind up seeing.

The rise of Web sites brimming with the minutiae of teen antics and angst has helped to create a rich climate for mayhem: locker-room photos snapped with cell phones and broadcast on the Internet, fake profiles created on social-networking sites, salacious rumors spread in chat rooms, threats zapped across town in instant messages.

States step in

Cyberbullying has impelled lawmakers, especially at the state level, to either pass anti-bullying laws that encompass cyberbullying or add cyberbullying to existing statutes. Some laws are propelled by a mix of concern about electronic bullying and online sexual predators.

But using laws and courts to stop cyberbullying has been tricky and sometimes controversial. "There's a big conflict in knowing where to draw the line between things that are rude and things that are illegal," said Parry Aftab, an Internet privacy and security lawyer who is executive director of wiredsafety.org, an Internet safety group in Irvington-on-Hudson, N.Y.

But the law on that question can be confusing, and the U.S. Supreme Court has yet to decide a case involving student Internet speech. Trying to regulate what students do or say on their home computers or in text messages sent from the local mall could wind up trampling students' constitutional rights or the rights of parents to direct their children's upbringing as they see fit, say free-speech advocates.

Still, many lawmakers are moving to add provisions to existing anti-bullying laws or writing new codes. Iowa, Maryland, Minnesota, New Jersey and Oregon have passed cyberbullying laws recently, and a number of other states are considering such statutes.

"Those who bully and harass stand in the way of learning and threaten the safety of our children," said Matt Blunt, the Republican governor of Missouri, after the state Senate passed a cyberbullying bill in March.

Legislators are overreacting, said the Berkman Center's Boyd. "These laws aren't doing anything. What we desperately need is education and discussion," along with greater attention from parents and other adults to the heavy pressures and expectations weighing on adolescents.

Off school grounds

Perhaps the most nettlesome circumstance is cyberbullying that is transmitted at home or the local mall or skating rink, but that nonetheless causes disruption at school.

"There's always the legal discussion of 'If it doesn't happen at school, can a district take action?' " said Joe Wehrli, policy services director for the Oregon School Boards Association. "If a student is harassed for three hours at night on the Web and they come to school and have to sit in the same classroom with the student that's the bully, there is an effect on education, and in that way, there is a direct link to schools."

But free-speech advocates say educators sometimes punish students whose speech is protected by the First Amendment.

"Off-campus behavior that is not connected to the school in any way -- no use of school computers, no transmission of messages in school -- is not within the purview of school officials," said Joan Bertin, executive director of the National Coalition Against Censorship, an advocacy group in New York. "It may have some play-out within school, but the actual speech took place in a protected zone. The school can't go after the speech, but it can go after the behavior that occurs on campus" as a result of the speech.

An exception would be speech that constitutes a true threat, Bertin said, but true threats must meet a high standard. "A kid e-mailing another kid saying, 'I'm going to knock your brains out' or 'I wish this teacher were dead' -- these are not, in my opinion, true threats."

Teachers and parents

Willard, at the Center for Safe and Responsible Internet Use, advises educators to step in even when cyberbullying occurs away from school if the clear potential exists that it would affect students and the educational climate. Even so, she said, administrators' actions are important.

"They may impose discipline if ... they're protecting the school's ability to deliver instruction, the security of students coming to school and [to avert] violence," she said.

When juveniles do commit serious online abuses, the question often arises: Where were the parents?

Shouldn't they be held accountable, or at least share the blame?

"The question isn't 'should,' the question is 'can,' and the answer is 'yes,' " Willard said. Under parental-liability statutes or parental-negligence standards, parents may be held liable for the harm caused by their children, she said.

In the civil-litigation system, "financial consequences for cyberbullying are now serious enough to make even the most lenient parent of a bully sit up and take notice," Millie Anne Cavanaugh, a family law attorney in Los Angeles, wrote recently on the Web site of a group that provides programs for troubled adolescents. "In addition to liability against the cyberbully himself on theories such as defamation, invasion of privacy, disclosure of private information and intentional infliction of emotional distress, parents could now [be] held accountable for their child's cyberbullying if they failed to properly supervise the child's online activity."

Susan Limber, a Clemson University psychologist who studies bullying, said many adolescents in focus groups say parents and teachers don't seem to talk enough with them about online behavior. "Kids on the one hand say parents should be a little more involved," Limber said. "But as one kid said, they want supervision, not 'snoopervision.' "

In other words, Limber said, "They want appropriate rules, but they don't want parents poking into every last e-mail or text message. But that's a fine line."

Parents can have an especially difficult time keeping track of what adolescents are posting on social-networking sites. Some child advocates say parents should create their own accounts so they can monitor what their children are doing on the sites.

"Putting something on the Internet is a whole lot different than whispering it on the playground," said Witold "Vic" Walczak, legal director of the ACLU in Pennsylvania.

Many parents and other responsible adults often neglect to impart that message to youngsters.

Weiss, of Operation Respect, said engaging adolescents in "conversation around moral issues" like cyberbullying "is really important for kids" but that many adults -- teachers among them -- don't know how to do so.

"We're not having this conversation enough," he said. "If we did, it would be the strongest thing we could do."

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