Sticks and stones will break your bones, but words will never hurt you... Wrong! Mean words do hurt you. They can cause emotional devastation and drive some to suicide or murder. In some ways, mean words contributed to the death last year of a sweet and troubled 13-year-old, Megan Meier. It all revolved around the scandal of a parent who lived in Megan’s neighborhood posing as a cute teen boy named Josh on MySpace. The parent wanted to trick Megan into trusting him and sharing confidences. Megan committed suicide after "Josh" turned on her, calling her names and attacking her reputation.
Megan is not the first teen to take her own life following online harassment and torment. It is becoming a disturbing trend and a growing risk. Neither is she the first to be targeted by an adult online. Sometimes adults target kids to get back at their parents. And, notwithstanding the lack of familiarity with the law in this area, existing laws punish people who pose as someone else, use the Internet to target a young teen for exploitation, or anonymously communicate online with someone to harass them.
There have been many similar cases (although without the adult harasser component) over the last few years. One form of harassment that’s on the rise is cyberbullying -- when one young person is targeted by one or more other young persons using interactive technologies. The most common cyberbullying platform in recent years takes place on Web 2.0 networks, like MySpace and YouTube Inc. Cyberbullies use these sites to post real or made-up information designed to embarrass their target and to get others on board. In some cases, online surveys are created to vote for the ugliest, fattest, most unpopular kids in school, post mean comments about them, and display pictures intended to humiliate them.
I speak with about 10,000 students every month, most between the ages of 8 and 16. At each presentation, I poll them about cyberbullying. I don’t ask them if they were “cyberbullied” since each person defines it differently. Instead, I list the kind of things that constitute “cyberbullying.” (You can learn more about this at StopCyberbullying.org.)
Over the last two years, I have polled about 45,000 students between the ages of 10 and 14 on this issue and have never gotten fewer than 85 percent of the students at a presentation or more than 97 percent to admit that they had been the target of cyberbullying at least once over the past year. Yet, less than 5 percent of the students report that they would tell their parents about it. The leading reasons for not saying anything are fear that their parents will make the situation worse by calling the other parents or school, over-reacting, blaming their kids, or taking away their computers.
What’s the answer? When the harasser is an adult, you need to get legal help. Criminal charges need to be pressed and lawsuits filed. (Cyberbullying is minor to minor. When an adult is involved, it's cyberharassment.) When the harasser is a minor, education can help. Our StopCyberbullying.org program can be used by schools and parents to educate kids about the consequences of cyberbullying and how to avoid it.
But, the most important thing parents can do to prevent tragedies (aside from holding the harassers accountable) is to communicate their concerns with kids in a supportive way. Parents should put aside the lectures, the incriminations, and the desire to take on the bully. Be a comfort, not an avenger.
Some cyberbullying is very dangerous and has offline physical risks. Some pass quickly when kids have a falling out and access to each other’s passwords and secrets. Police need to get involved if there is any question about offline threats. StopCyberbullying.org provides first responder kits for law enforcement, as well as a checklist for parents on ways to tell the difference between children being rude and dangerous activities. As one young teen confided, “Cyberbullying is worse than offline bullying. You never know if it’s your worst enemy or your best friend. You never know whom to trust.”
Cyberbullying hurts. Take it seriously!
— Parry Aftab, Cyberlawyer, privacy and security expert, and Executive Director, WiredSafety.org, the world’s largest and oldest cybersafety and help group