Programs aim to stop ‘cyber bullying’

Schoolyard bullies are becoming increasingly high tech, as a growing number of students now engage in “cyber bullying” by spreading rumors through web sites or harassing students through text messages or eMail. To combat this trend, anti-bullying programs across North America are adding information about cyber bullying and its effects on today’s youth.

The federal government, for instance, recently added information about cyber bullying to the $3.2 million “Stop Bullying Now!” campaign that it launched last year. The Beaverton, Ore., school system is revising its health curriculum, and cyber bullying is among the topics that officials there might include. Cyber bullying also has been added as a topic in many internet safety courses, such as the free lessons from i-SAFE America Inc.

Such efforts come at a time when cyber bullying is on the rise, experts say.

In the last month alone, a Portage, Ind., high school student was accused of threatening the life of another student over the internet–and in San Francisco, an unidentified student reportedly hacked into a high school web site, posted a student’s face over vulgar and mocking images, then added racist captions using the victim’s name.

i-SAFE America, a nonprofit internet safety foundation for K-12 students, conducted an online survey of 1,500 children in grades 4-8 last year. In that study, 42 percent of children said they were bullied while online, 35 percent said they were threatened online, and 21 percent said they received mean or threatening eMail or instant messages.

In October, Sameer Hinduja, a criminal justice professor at Florida Atlantic University, and Justin Patchin, a political science professor at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, announced the results of their own online survey of 1,400 youths, one of the first major university-sanctioned studies of cyber bullying. More than a third of those surveyed had experienced bullying online, mostly in chat rooms or through text messaging, the researchers said.

The Center for Safe and Responsible Internet Use (CSRIU) classifies cyber bullying as sending or posting harmful or cruel text or images using the internet or other digital communication devices.

On its web site, CSRIU identifies a handful of different forms that cyber bullying may take, some of which include “flaming,” or sending angry, rude, or vulgar messages; harassment, or repeatedly sending harmful messages; cyber-stalking, or harassment that is highly intimidating or threatens harm; and denigrations–sending or posting untrue or cruel statements.

Bullying itself is nothing new. But experts say technology allows students to take bullying to a new–and potentially more insidious–level.

Cyber bullies are more likely to do or say things online that they normally wouldn’t in person, because electronic means of communication provide invisibility, according to CSRIU. Additionally, the bullying might be worse online or by other electronic means, because those doing the bullying do not actually see the effects of their harsh words or actions on others.

“I do a lot of work with school districts, and cyber bullying is definitely popping up on the radar screen,” said Nora Carr, chief communications officer for the Charlotte-Mecklenburg, N.C., Schools. Carr writes a monthly column on stakeholder and community relations for eSchool News and has extensive experience in educational communications and marketing.

“Instant messaging has really taken off, and unfortunately cyber bullying has taken off with it,” Carr said.

According to the Pew Internet and American Life Project, 74 percent of teens now use instant messaging as a primary form of communication. And as children become increasingly knowledgeable about technology, Carr said, they find new ways to intimidate others.

“One reason cyber bullying is particularly devastating is that it follows you home,” Carr said. “It invades your sanctuary. They tell kids to walk away from bullies–well, you can’t if it follows you home.”

She added: “I think the scary thing is that it can spread so rapidly. The very things that make technology a boon for fast communication work equally well against people.”

Ted Feinberg, assistant executive director of the National Association of School Psychologists (NASP), agreed.

“The more insidious aspect of cyber bullying is that it is unrelenting and can go on continuously,” he said. “Traditional bullying is troublesome, but it doesn’t have the same frequency that cyber bullying has, just by virtue of the extended audience” that online forms of harassment have.

Programs such as “Stop Bullying Now!” aim to stifle this trend.

Administered by the Department of Health and Human Services’ Health Resources and Services Administration, “Stop Bullying Now!” is a campaign to prevent bullying and youth violence in partnership with more than 70 health, safety, education, and faith-based organizations. The program includes a web site with information for teens, parents, and teachers about what bullying is and what stakeholders can do to stop it.

A cyber-bullying scenario is included among the 12 animated “webisodes” on the program’s web site. These webisodes, which offer examples of hurtful behavior, aim to make students think about the consequences of their words and actions. In one of the webisodes, a character named K.B. recalls her first day at a new school, during which a group of girls take a picture of a ketchup stain on her pants and post it online for the entire student body to see, along with the caption, “K.B. = Ketchup Butt.”

The site also includes information about what students should do if they are the victims of cyber bullying.

“If you are being bullied online, don’t reply. This may actually make the bullying worse,” the site says. “Instead, be sure to tell a family member or another adult you trust. If possible, block any more communications from this person. & Save evidence of the bullying. If you get a nasty eMail, print it out or save it so that you can show it to an adult.”

One twist to cyber bullying–as suggested by the “Stop Bullying Now!” scenario–is that girls are just as likely to engage in this behavior as are boys. In fact, this was the theme of a recent musical for teens, performed by Canada-based Stage Kids: The Edu-Tainment Company.

Called “Ctrl Alt Delete,” the show revealed to its audience the truth about bullying: It doesn’t just happen with shoves on the playground or in school hallways, and boys aren’t the only ones who choose to intimidate their peers. While boys tend to bully with physical aggression, girls often resort to more psychological and emotional methods, the musical explained.

“There’s a lot involved in the show, including how cyber bullying occurs, its consequences, and how to deal with it,” said Barbara Onrot, the producer of Stage Kids productions.

Female bullying has been a favorite topic of books and movies such as Mean Girls, but it leaves lasting effects that aren’t portrayed in Hollywood’s versions. Physical, emotional, and mental scars often follow girls into adulthood, sometimes affecting their social skills and career abilities, experts say.

Earlier this year, “It’s a Girl’s World,” a series of radio and television programs by the Canadian Broadcasting Company and the National Film Board of Canada (NFB), examined relationships among young girls–and how girls often use friendships to hurt each other and win social power. The program showed how social aggression in girls is being studied for the first time, after decades of research on physical bullying among boys.

“Research conducted around the world shows that girls everywhere are motivated to use their closest relationships as weapons, regardless of class, race, or family background,” says the NFB’s web site.

Experts say students might have a hard time telling parents or teachers about cyber bullying, because they fear adults won’t understand the problem. But programs such as “Ctrl Alt Delete” and “Stop Bullying Now!” urge the victims–and witnesses–of cyber bullying to speak up.

“Kids should speak to someone,” said Onrot. “Of course, they don’t want to tell their parents, but we encourage them to. We show the consequences of what happens if you let it go and don’t talk about it. There’s regret involved–the ‘If only I had said something, if only I hadn’t let this go on.'”

NASP’s Feinberg agreed: “We have to try to convince our children that telling an adult about bullying isn’t a sign of weakness. Let a concerned adult know. Sometimes children endure these behaviors because they believe that they have to, and we have to change that attitude.”

For school leaders, cyber bullying is harder to control, because it can happen in schools and at home. Sometimes, the threatening communication can be tracked on school computers–but it’s much harder to address the issue if it’s happening from home.

“Clearly, schools need to have a well-articulated and broadly distributed code of conduct that should be known by children, parents, and staff. Bullying can be an absolutely terrible, tormenting experience, and schools and homes must work collaboratively in their efforts,” Feinberg said.

Some state officials and internet safety experts advocate legal action to prevent cyber bullying.

Washington State Sen. Jeanne Kohl-Welles, D-Seattle, in April introduced a bill that would require cyber bullying to be included in schools’ lists of prohibited behavior. Under Washington’s current state law, school districts are required to have policies prohibiting bullying–defined as “written, verbal, or physical acts that negatively affect a student or the school environment.”

Kohl-Welles’ bill would add electronic bullying to this definition. The bill did not pass, but Kohl-Welles said in an eMail message that she hopes the bill will pass in the future.

“[The bill] languished in the Senate Rules Committee with other bills having higher priority at the time,” she said. “I am hopeful in getting it through in the 2006 session.”

Carr said keeping home computers in open spaces is one way parents can prevent cyber bullying.

Children and young adults need to feel not only physically safe but also emotionally safe, and bullying of any kind will affect social relationships and skill development, she said.

“I think we need to be aware that cyber bullying is an issue, that it may be the same bullying we’ve had forever, but it’s taking new forms,” Carr said. “Make students aware that it’s not OK–and it will not be tolerated.”

Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.


“Stop Bullying Now!”

i-SAFE America Inc.

Center for Safe and Responsible Internet Use

National Association of School Psychologists

Stage Kids: The Edu-Tainment Company

Laura Ascione

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