Being a bully back in the day used to be simpler. A big kid cornered someone smaller than himself and demanded their lunch money. With the advent of cell phones, instant messaging and social networks such as Facebook, a new form of intimidation and harassment called cyberbullying has entered the teen landscape.
A pair of researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire recently released a fact sheet based on research involving about 2,000 randomly selected middle-school students from one of the largest school districts in the country. Sameer Hinduja and Justin W. Patchin of the Cyberbullying Research Center found that 30 percent of middle school students were victims of at least one form of cyberbullying two or more times in the past month and 22 percent of students admitted to engaging in at least one type of cyberbullying in the past 30 days.
At its worst, cyberbullying can be an aggravating factor that can push some troubled teens toward nervous breakdowns or suicide. Take the recent case of 11-year-old Jessi Slaughter, whose life was turned topsy-turvy after cyberbullies attacked her after she posted a raunchy YouTube video. There’s also the well-publicized case of 15-year-old Phoebe Prince of South Hadley, Mass., who hung herself after being severely bullied in person and in cyberspace by classmates. Lastly, there’s the sad story of Megan Taylor Meier, who committed suicide by hanging in 2006 after she was the victim of cyberbullying via MySpace. In a piece she wrote about cyberbullying, FYI Mental Health expert So-Mai Brown explained, “Adults and young people alike are unlikely to commit suicide from cyberbullying alone without some pre-existing mental health issues.”
There’s a fine line between typical teen bantering and cyberbullying that gets blurry when you consider that comments can be made anonymously in some online forums and the viral nature of the Internet can spread a rumor faster than wildfire. A Web site produced by MTV called “A Thin Line” helps parents and teens understand the boundaries between typical teen speak and cyberbullying. The site uses a video quiz with multiple-choice questions such as, “You check your phone and you see your best friend sent you nude pics of the girl that everybody loves to hate. So, you immediately?” The answers included sharing the picture with other friends, deleting them or saving them for viewing later. The goal of the quiz and the site overall is to help youths draw their own digital line to lessen cyberbullying.
Another resource called “Connect Safely” offers a wide array of tips for youngsters who are being bullied. The tips include advice such as “Don’t respond,” because that’s exactly what the bully wants, to gain some power over his/her victim and “Don’t retaliate,” because that can turn you into a bully and start a cycle of aggression.
Even though cyberbullying is a new form of intimidation and harassment that teens must deal with, the good news is that there is a growing number of resources for teens and parents to help cope with the problem.