Watertown Daily Times
YOUTHS COPE WITH CYBERBULLYING
‘PART OF OUR EVERYDAY LIFE’: Online taunting often spills over into schools
Date: Sunday, December 30, 2007
By KELLY L. REYNOLDS
TIMES STAFF WRITER
Illustration: Color photo by Norm Johnston Watertown Daily Times
A question was posed to a class at Indian River High School in Philadelphia: “Do you think cyberbullying is a big problem here?”The consensus: “Not really.”
But then one student said he’d been threatened with being beaten up on MySpace .com, a social networking Web site where users can have individual profiles and send messages to friends or other users. Another student said someone posted degrading photos of her sister on the site. Another student said he was the one who often threatened people over instant messages and e-mails.
The question was posed again.
“Yes, it’s a problem,” one student said. “But it’s really just a part of our everyday life.”
According to StopCyberBullying.org, a Web site about the dangers of and ways to prevent cyberbullying, when a youth is threatened, harassed, embarrassed or otherwise targeted by another youth using the Internet, mobile phones or other technologies, it is considered cyberbullying.
Students say the bullying mainly comes via MySpace .com, Facebook.com, another social networking site similar to MySpace.com, or instant messaging through programs that can be used to communicate directly with others via the Internet.
“They can be talking about other people or posting pictures of other people,” said one student. “Sometimes people can take pictures of people off someone’s MySpace and create a new MySpace page with the pictures and bad comments about those people. I know that happened last year.”
Often, the threatening and name-calling can spill over into schools and turn into fights.
“I told a guy online that I was going to beat him,” one student said. “He came to school the day after and we had a fight in the hall.”
CHANGING THE FACE OF BULLYING
Cyberbullying has “grown dramatically in the last two years,” said Stephan J. Vigliotti Sr., superintendent of the General Brown Central School District. “We often see where students are having disputes through an electronic medium where it is flowing into our schools.”
Cameron M. Schmidt, 13, son of Emily E. and Ian C. Schmidt, and a student at Case Middle School in Watertown, said he’s heard of rumors being spread about people and thinks cyberbullying is “a really big problem.”
“Someone once took a picture of my friend at a party and photoshopped it, then put it on MySpace showing her all beat up and nasty,” said one student. Adobe Photoshop is a computer program that can be used to alter photos or graphics.
Another student agreed that the Internet is altering the way people are being bullied.
“You can be anonymous so you can say things about people that you wouldn’t ordinarily say to their faces,” she said. “They think they’re invincible because they’re behind the Internet. It’s not like a ‘typical school bully’ anymore, where they’re always the big guys picking on the little guys in the hallways. Now it’s whoever is on the other end of the instant message – it can be anyone.”
Troy W. Decker, principal of Indian River High School, said he also has seen a difference in bullying in his school.
“Bullying isn’t any more or less than it’s ever been, but now there’s 24-7 access to a medium that allows people to communicate either positively or negatively,” he said. “We deal with cyberbullying on a regular basis. It’s mainly friends putting down friends, or others putting down classmates.”
One student said the victims of cyberbullying are affected more than victims of in-school bullying.
“It used to be that they could go home to get away from it,” she said. “But now they can’t because it’s at home on their computer, too, “It’s attacking at another level.”
THE NEXT STEP
Administrators and school resource officers in many districts have started to think proactively with cyberbullying by frequently checking students’ MySpace profiles.
“Our school resource office is definitely looking on our students’ MySpace accounts,” Mr. Vigliotti said. “So is his agency. The New York State Police and sheriff departments are looking into MySpace to ensure student safety.”
Beyond taking a proactive approach, school districts often intervene when an online argument spills over in school, or when a student feels threatened by what another student said online.
“If we see threatening language, especially against another student, we can take action, especially if the other student feels threatened,” said James Kettrick, superintendent of the Indian River Central School District. “If there are suggestive photographs we find, we often speak to the student about our concerns, and if there are weapons demonstrated in photographs, we always consult with the police and always call a parent. If the situation is severe enough, we can detain or suspend the student.”
Mr. Kettrick said if the school can establish a link between what was said online and a student feeling harassed or threatened in school, it’s “within the realm of action to protect those students’ rights. It’s still harassment – but instead of being face to face it’s in text format over a computer.”
Mr. Vigliotti said that because of the lack of laws pertaining to online harassment, it’s often hard for the police or investigating bodies to prosecute.
“We don’t have a lot of laws on the books that give the authority to law enforcement to prosecute these kind of situations,” he said. “If anything happens, they can turn it into harassment charges. We had one case last year that resulted in a serious misdemeanor offense because threats were made.”
There is no quick fix for the rising number of cyberbullying cases, but administrators and students alike say the key to slowing down the trend is parental involvement.
“Kids are experts and know much more about technology than their parents in most cases – that makes it tough to keep up on,” Mr. Vigliotti said. “Certain groups of parents are very well informed about the Internet and monitor their kids, but many parents are not involved in the use of electronic media themselves and it’s a foreign language to them.”
Suzanne C. Tingley, superintendent of Sackets Harbor Central School District, said: “It’s important to have the computer in a family area where parents can monitor what their kids are doing. Parents need to be aware of where their kids are going on the computer as it pertains to MySpace issues and also the revealing of personal information.”
One student said it’s important for parents to “have conversations with their kids so they can teach kids what’s appropriate. They should do it at a younger age when they’re more impressionable.”
Many north country school districts have held Internet workshops for students and teachers about Internet safety.
At Indian River Intermediate School, Principal Lana J. Taylor holds annual workshops titled “Your Child and the Internet.”
“It’s important for parents to have these conversations with their children,” she said. “We live in a tech-filled world and we can’t deny that. But we need to make sure our children and parents have the knowledge so they can remain safe.”
Watertown Daily Times