As school districts across the United States grapple with preventing and dealing with bullying among students, a newer and more subversive form is being employed in increasing numbers: cyber bullying.
In 2005, the federal government added cyber bullying to its $3.2 million, year-old “Stop Bullying Now!” campaign. Washington state Sen. Jeanne Kohl-Welles (D-Seattle) introduced legislation requiring schools to prohibit cyber bullying, and two separate studies reached similar conclusions about the dangers of cyber bullying.
Experts say it is not surprising bullying has moved to the Internet. Ted Feinberg, assistant executive director of the National Association of School Psychologists, believes cyber bullying has existed for years, but now younger children are participating and affected by it in greater numbers.
“When I was a practicing psychologist in New York several years ago, cyber bullying was already emerging,” Feinberg said. “Now, by all accounts from the field, cyber bullying has increased in frequency and continues to do so. Increasingly, younger and younger children are becoming more facile with computers.”
Problem Is Common
Although experts such as Feinberg believe cyber bullying has been occurring for several years, few formal attempts have been made until recently to analyze the practice.
In 2002, this dearth of information prompted two professors studying online harassment issues to create their own study on cyber bullying. Dr. Sameer Hinduja, a criminal justice professor at Florida Atlantic University, and Dr. Justin Patchin, a political science professor at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, conducted a pilot survey in 2004. The results were so compelling that a more comprehensive survey–consisting of 1,400 teens, evenly split between boys and girls–followed in January 2005.
The study’s results suggest cyber bullying is affecting a significant minority of school-age children, with nearly 35 percent of respondents claiming to have been bullied in chat rooms, e-mail, and text messages.
Difficult to Define
Hinduja’s and Patchin’s findings are consistent in many respects with a study released in 2004 by i-SAFE America, a nonprofit organization focusing on Internet safety for children. i-SAFE’s study suggests even larger numbers of middle-school students experience bullying and threats online: According to the study, 42 percent of fourth- through eighth-graders were bullied online, and 35 percent reported being threatened online.
Patchin said cyber bullying defies strict definition, but for their academic purposes, it was defined as “willful and repeated harm inflicted through the medium of electronic text.”
“This is a broad definition which encapsulates all forms of online harassment that commonly occurs over the Internet using computers, but can also include cell phones,” Patchin explained. “Examples include sending threatening e-mails, posting derogatory comments about someone on a Web site, sending harassing text messages, physically threatening or intimidating someone. Minor forms of cyber bullying include ignoring others, disrespecting others. The more debasing forms seem to include spreading rumors about someone or physically threatening someone.”
Because cyber bullying is a faceless enterprise, psychologists believe its emotional effects on students are even more insidious than traditional bullying.
“Traditional bullying is a problem in and of itself in terms of emotional damage, but at least you have a sense of who the bully is in real life,” Feinberg said. “With cyber bullying, the bully is essentially invisible, and therefore the torment is even more problematic because of the anonymity of the perpetrator.”
With the vastness of the Internet as an audience, the number of witnesses and the frequency of bullying can increase exponentially, Feinberg said.
“The time frame is undefined in cyber bullying–it could occur all day and all night. It can be an unrelenting type of intimidation,” Feinberg said. “Also, the range of participants in cyber bullying is as large as the bully’s address book. The number of bystanders multiplies exponentially over the Internet.”
Counterattacks Compound Problem
Patchin noted one click of the mouse could be devastating for an adolescent.
“If you think about how miserable life was for you when you were an adolescent when someone spread a rumor around school about you that wasn’t true, imagine how easily this is done today,” Patchin said. “One e-mail to everyone in the school can take only a matter of seconds.”
Complicating the matter, Feinberg said, is the relative safety a bullying victim finds in counter-attacking through the Internet.
“Many kids cope by turning the tables on bullies, and the Internet provides a level playing field,” Feinberg explained. “In a way, it empowers kids who would be afraid to stand up to a bully in person, because using the Internet as a club of sorts gives them certain protections and satisfaction.”
Solutions Becoming Available
According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ “Stop Bullying Now!” campaign, school administrators can take several steps to address bullying, including involving parents in a meaningful way and developing consistent policies and punishments.
Experts such as Patchin and Feinberg warn, however, that cyber bullies have slightly different characteristics than traditional bullies–including the fact that girls do it as often as boys.
Patchin and Hinduja are developing a curriculum for schools and parents on dealing with cyber bullying. It is scheduled for release this spring.
Kate McGreevy ([email protected]) is a freelance education writer living in New Mexico. She formerly worked with the Cesar Chavez Public Charter Schools for Public Policy in Washington, DC.
For more information …
To learn more about “Stop Bullying Now!” visit http://stopbullyingnow.hrsa.gov.
For more information on cyber bullying and to read Hinduja and Patchin’s study, visit http://www.cyberbullying.us.
For more on Internet safety, visit http://www.isafe.org.