If you have not yet done so, please read the first instalment of this two-part feature on cyber bullying.
"There is a belief that cyber bullying isn't a big deal," says Justin Patchin, PhD, assistant professor of criminal justice in the department of political science at the University of Wisconsin, Eau Claire. "Like traditional bullying, it's seen as a rite of passage; something that everyone goes through."
Dr. Patchin is among a handful of researchers changing public perception on the seriousness of the issue. It's an uphill battle: parents are often in the dark about what goes on in their children's world of Internet and text messaging communication. And they often don't realize that the capacity for harm in the cyber world can be much faster, more widespread and, just as damaging, than in the playground. "We need to get to the understanding that this is harmful. Like traditional bullying, we're trying to demonstrate that it is a big deal."
Dr. Patchin and his colleague recently presented new data at the Annual Meeting of Criminal Justice Sciences in March of 2005 in Chicago. Although his findings were preliminary, his study contributes to a growing sense of what cyber bullying is, who does it and, ultimately, what can be done to stop it. One area of particular interest to researchers is one of profile: who are cyber bullies and who are their victims.
"There are similarities and differences with traditional bullies," says Michele Ybarra, PhD, a researcher at Internet Solutions for Kids, an American non-profit group exploring the phenomenon of cyber bullying. "Traditional bullies tend to be males; both victim and aggressor. Online, males and females bully in equal measure." In terms of age groups, Dr. Ybarra says that while traditional bullying tends to happen mostly in middle school, "the majority of cyber bullying happens to children over 15 years old."
Dr. Patchin also notes in his research that about half of the children who report being bullied at school also report being harassed on line. "There seems to be a group of kids who are involved with both kinds of bullying," he says, including a sub-group of children who are victimized in the school yard but are bullies on line. Dr. Patchin suspects that this phenomenon and the increased participation of girls might be explained in terms of anonymity. "A four-foot-ten kid can be equalized with the football jock and may be more adept at doing it with the technological know how."
The anonymity and distance created by the internet and other modern technologies can have other effects. "The literature shows that even adults are less inhibited with email and don't tend to follow social norms of communication as closely," says Dr. Ybarra. In this sense, it may be harder for children to realize the kinds of damage they are potentially causing, in part because "the physical context, the facial expressions and so on are missing."
In addition to gender and age differences between traditional and cyber bullying, the nature of attacks are also different. "Typically it's more subtle, more psychological and emotional in quality," says Dr. Patchin. "The fact is, kids don't see the difference [between the physical and emotional] and are still fearful. As adults we can often just blow off hits to our reputations but kids don't: reputation is everything."
Dr. Ybarra agrees: "For kids, the distinction between online and offline worlds is blurry. To them it's one experience. Simply because it happens online doesn't mean it will be more or less emotionally distressing for the child."
For some parents, dealing with cyber bullying can be a larger challenge than confronting bullying of the traditional kind for a number of reasons. Firstly, parents are often not as savvy as children when using modern communication technologies such as chat rooms and instant messaging. This ignorance of what are normal social interaction methods for children breeds fear, especially when something appears to be going wrong. Secondly, because of the more personal nature of these types of communication, parents may not even realize that something is amiss with their child.
"It's a dilemma: as a parent, you used to be able to get a sense of what was going on with the phone," says Debra Pepler, Professor of Psychology at York University and senior associate scientist at the Sick Kids Hospital in Toronto. Dr. Pepler explains that in the past, parents got hints of what was happening in their child's life by observing their social interactions. For example, if a threat was delivered over the phone and the parent was in the same room as their child, it is likely that the parent would realize that something negative was going on. This in turn might have created an opportunity for discussion about problems. "But text messaging and the Internet in general is much less open," she says, "and therefore less likely to spark a dialogue between parents and children."
What parents can do
Dr. Patchin's research showed that most children who were bullied on-line did not tell their parents, teachers or other adults. "We found that they were afraid to tell because they didn't want to lose their computer privileges." If children don't tell anyone what is going on, there is little that parents can do to help. "Taking the computer away is not an appropriate response," says Dr. Pepler. "Children should not be punished for being honest about a serious issue and should be told in advance that their computer privileges will not be taken away if they reveal they are being bullied. The kids these days are in near isolation without a computer."
Dr. Patchin adds that "given what kids will have to do later in life with computers, removing them isn't necessarily the smart thing to do."
Looking at cyber bullying within the context of bullying in general may provide a better understanding as to what is an appropriate response. "If your kids were bullied at school, you wouldn't pull them out. It's not problem solving," says Dr. Ybarra. "There are obvious benefits to going to school, but also some risks: peer violence, traditional bullying, and so on. By understanding both the benefits and risks, we can help our children navigate as safely as possible through them."
Dr. Ybarra also suggests that parents can help their children by becoming comfortable with the Internet and trying to see it as their children do, as just another environment in which they interact. Parents need to know where their kids are and who they are with after school, and this is also true for the online environment.
While supervising your child online may not be easy, it will be made easier if your child cooperates and volunteers information in a spirit of trust. "Keep the lines of communication open with the kids. Know what your kids are up to," offers Dr. Pepler. "Put the computer in the kitchen or some other high traffic area." Starting a general dialogue about bullying in the abstract may also help kids open up about their personal activities on line. "We see bullying as a relationship problem and so it needs a relationship solution. Kids need to learn how to handle conflict. Something they will have to do both on and off line for the rest of their lives."
"It took several generations to realize that traditional bullying is bad," says Dr. Patchin. "I hope it doesn't take that long for people to realize that cyber bullying can be just as damaging."
The strange case of the "Star Wars Kid"
In 2003 using his school's AV lab, an overweight teen from Quebec filmed himself fighting invisible enemies with a light saber fashioned out of a broomstick. Full of exuberance, the teen makes his own sound effects as he awkwardly thrashes about, his moves filmed for his own private viewing. Or so he thought.
A few days later, some other students at the school found the video and uploaded it to a file sharing website. Within weeks, over 15 million people had downloaded the two minute video, including most of the student body. The boy quickly found his most private moments at the center of the latest Internet legend and he himself was dubbed "the Star Wars Kid" as the video was widely reported (and broadcast) in the mainstream media. Some of the online community started altering the video, adding sound and visual effects and reposting the new versions. While probably most people watched the videos for a quick laugh, the boy in question was not amused. He was taunted at school and, according to his parents who are now suing the other children involved, had to be put into a mental hospital for a short time.
Meanwhile, Star Wars fans and others on the Internet took a liking to the boy and his plight. "Yes, we've all had our dorky, private moments, but this poor kid is living the nightmare of having his private dorkiness projected across the world to giggling Web users," posted one sympathetic individual on his web site. Others of like mind established a fund for the teen and several thousand dollars were sent to him.
In addition, a petition was circulated and eventually over 150,000 signatures were sent to George Lucas, in an effort to get the filmmaker to put the teen in a cameo in the final and yet unfinished Star Wars movie. Although the teen didn't get in the movie, T-shirts of his likeness can be ordered on line.
The moral of the story?
While the internet has the power to tear down, it also has the power to connect like minded and sympathetic people. Many of the enhanced videos, of which there are over a hundred, were likely done out of celebration rather than with malicious intent and to many, the teen has become a kind of folk hero.
"Don't vilify the Internet; it's an environment that is neither good nor bad," say Dr. Ybarra. While acknowledging the potential for serious harm over the Internet, Dr. Ybarra believes that "for marginalized individuals the Internet can be fabulous. It can become a support network."
Even in the middle of what might be the world's biggest humiliation on record.