Eleven-year-old Kevin Michaud of Elmhurst couldn’t understand why all his friends were mad at him when he walked into school one morning.
He was even more confused when they talked about the insults and swear words they’d received from him in instant messages the night before, because Kevin hadn’t been on instant messenger (IM) the night before, even though records later showed that a Kevin Michaud had logged on and communicated with his buddies.
Whoever was posing as Kevin knew his buddy list, his password and details about his school. Unnerved, Kevin told his mother, Laura, but they didn’t know who the imposter was so they couldn’t figure out how to stop him.
That anonymity is exactly what makes cyberbullying so easy, and so potentially harmful. With current technology, savvy kids are using instant messenger, Web sites, blogs, chat rooms and cell phones to bully in a way never seen before. One survey found that more than three out of four 11- to 17-year-olds interviewed had either seen someone else cyberbullying, been a victim of it, or engaged in it themselves.
What used to come in the form of a mean note scribbled out in the classroom is now an e-mail blasted to 50 classmates. Think someone’s ugly? Write about it in an online slam book. Want to get back at the girl who got the part in the school play you wanted? Use your cell phone to take a picture of her changing in the gym locker room and post it on a Web site.
Stakes are higher
The possibilities are endless, and because cyberbullying can be done anonymously, children can inflict pain without facing the consequences of their actions.
"In traditional bullying, you knew who the schoolyard bully was and you knew to go the other way," says Amy Looper, co-founder of Mind Oh!, a Houston-based company that provides schools with educational programs on bullying.
"With cyberbullying, or e-thugging, it’s anonymous, and it’s not just one-on-one—it could be many-on-one. Kids used to have slam books to insult kids; now there’s an online slam-book version where kids post comments about other kids."
To find out just how prevalent cyberbullying is, Mind Oh! conducted a survey earlier this year of more than 5,000 middle-school and high-school children.
That survey, which found that 78 percent of the 11- to 17-year-olds had been affected by cyberbullying, also revealed that the problem is at its peak during the middle-school years, which are already notorious for cliques, bullying and mean-spirited behaviors. In Illinois, 81 percent of cyberbullying consisted of gossiping about others while online—taking what used to be a few kids talking mean and moving it to a whole new realm, according to Mind Oh!
Lynn Horne, a Downers Grove mother, isn’t surprised teens have moved their gossip into computer messaging. As the parent of three girls in middle school and high school, she’s seen her share of hurtful instant messages. She’s also seen her girls become interested in computer messaging at younger and younger ages.
"When my oldest was on it, kids started using it in eighth grade. Now they’re starting in fourth grade, and that’s the age of ‘I don’t like you,’ " Horne says. "It opens up to not just one person gossiping—it opens up to tons of people, and it affects them at school."
Too big for kids
And bullying in cyberspace can escalate conflicts to a serious level. Some parents have opened their front door to find police ready to charge their child with a crime for something written online.
"The privacy element exceeds children’s skills—it’s really dangerous for them," says Anne Parry, director of the Office of Violence Protection for the Chicago Department of Health. "There’s no one looking over their shoulder. There’s a lack of monitoring, and this privacy cocoon gives them a feeling of power, but it’s not consistent with their maturity. And it’s not just violence—it’s talking about sex and all sorts of other topics."
As evidence of just how much cyberbullying can escalate, Parry cites the case of two seventh-grade girls on the Southwest Side of Chicago who were instant messaging each other about a third girl. The final message said: Wait until after Tuesday—so-and-so will be sorry she was ever born.
The mother of one of the cyberbullying girls happened to be standing nearby when the final message came through. After reading it, she called the police, who called the Federal Communications Commission. Within 72 hours, the FBI was notified, and the child who sent the message was escorted to the local police station for questioning before being released and sent home. Parry shares that story with children and parents every chance she gets.
"We have to talk about the experiences, the potential consequences, and we need to talk about how the level of risk has risen," Parry says.
And, says Looper, it’s important not to react in a knee-jerk way when a child reports a cyberbullying incident.
"In the surveys, we found that kids are afraid to tell adults because they’re afraid to lose computer privileges," Looper says. Instead, she recommends that parents who think their children might be targets of online bullying, or might be doing the bullying, look into exactly what was sent and received: Many instant messaging programs allow the day’s text to be pulled up and printed by clicking on the tool bar.
She suggests parents find out how they can access daily text records from their service providers—and then let their kids know they’ll periodically check their messages.
"To have parents copy IM lets kids know they have to watch what they say, and it also protects the parents," Looper says.
The key is to make it a rule that children cannot clear the text—parents will know when that happens because nothing will be on the screen when they call it up. Still, there is no way to retrieve the messages once they’re gone, she says. Make sure children understand that using the computer is a privilege that can be taken away if it is misused.
Copies of text messages were used in a Texas court case four years ago involving two 12-year-old girls, one of whom was sending inappropriate messages to the other. The parents of the victim took the transcripts to the other parents, to school and ultimately to court.
Since the parents had proof, they were able to identify the bully and stop the bullying, although the victim still suffered long-term damage.
Ignore the attacks
Detective Frank Visconti of the Elmhurst Police Department has found that bullying often continues or escalates because children respond. As the resource officer for three middle schools and a high school, Visconti is familiar with the ways students can use the computer to hurt each other. And he thinks the best response is none at all.
"I get these girls who walk in here with four pages [of computer printouts], where the boy calls her a [foul name] and she keeps responding, so he sees he’s getting to her," Visconti says. "I tell them, ‘Put him on your ignore list.’ "
Anonymous bullying can be tougher to stop. The first step is to try and identify the bully by right-mouse clicking over the bully’s message, which sometimes identifies the sender, Looper says. Parents can contact the service provider and offer as much information about the abuse as possible. If the service provider is able to identify the bully, he or she will be kicked off.
Parents who identify the bully should also try contacting the child’s parents or school to help resolve the conflict. "Most of the time, especially with fifth and sixth-grade parents, I tell them to call the other parents first. It’s better than having the police show up at the door," Visconti says. "A lot of times the other parents don’t even know it’s going on."
If the problem continues to escalate and conversations with other parents and teachers haven’t helped, Visconti recommends getting the local police department involved.
"There is the charge of disorderly conduct, which means anything that’s alarming and disturbing. If you know who the bully is and if they’re doing something to threaten or scare you, call us right away," Visconti says. "There are laws out there, and we do subpoena records and arrest people."
That didn’t happen in Kevin Michaud’s case because the attacks ended before his attacker was identified. Kevin and his mom did come close to catching the culprit one evening, however. A friend of Kevin’s called and said the other "Kevin" was online that very minute.
Kevin and Laura raced to the computer and began communicating with the imposter, asking him questions while Laura got on the phone with their service provider, AOL, to try to catch him.
"We asked who he was, and he said, ‘I’m Kevin Michaud,’ and we’re talking back and forth," Laura remembers. "I’m trying to figure out who it is and I’m fuming, because I want to nail this kid."
Unfortunately, by the time Laura got through to an AOL customer service representative, the imposter had signed off, deleting his account and any chance of catching him.
But the long-term damage was done. From then on, every time Kevin arrived at school, he found himself wondering if the imposter was that boy or that girl. Because the person had access to Kevin’s personal information, it had to be somebody he knew. He didn’t know who to trust anymore.
"I felt really violated, and Kevin was so angry because he’s going to school and trying to figure out who did this to him," Laura says. "We called AOL but there was nothing they could do. We called the police and they couldn’t track [the bully] down."
Just like bullies on the playground rarely abuse their victims in front of a teacher, few cyberbullies write nasty messages when parents are looking over their shoulders. That’s why it’s important to keep the computer in a public part of the house, rather than stashed away in the privacy of a child’s bedroom.
Parry notes: "We adults have every responsibility to be alert at all levels where harm can happen and to intervene and speak up. We need to encourage children to ask for help. Children can’t handle bullying on their own."
The allure of cyberbullying is that it’s hard to identify the culprit. Because of this, children need to be taught the skills to stay away from bullying and to avoid using technology to hurt others. Amy Looper, co-founder of Mind Oh!, a Houston-based company that provides schools with educational programs on bullying, recommends taking a proactive approach to cyberbullying:• Talk about what’s acceptable and what the consequences are for those who act otherwise. • Encourage kids to think twice before hitting the send button and to share any messages that make them uncomfortable or scared. • Teach children not to respond to messages that are insulting or contain foul language. Instead, block future messages from that sender. • If the harassment doesn’t stop, help the child get a new screen name. • Be sure your child knows to protect his passwords and to share screen names only with trusted friends. "Kids have an internal moral compass, and it knocked our socks off that kids do understand [cyberbullying] is not a good thing. The kids who were observers said they felt helpless and didn’t know what to do," Looper says. "Kids are saying, ‘If you give us the tools, we’ll act differently.’ They’re not going to tap you on the shoulders and ask for the information, though." Liz DeCarlo is freelance writer who lives in Darien with her husband and three children.