Mental Health

Bullying; High-tech harassment is hitting teens hard

Bullying is nothing new, but it takes on a new and ominous tone in cyberspace. Adults are catching on.

  Only after Ryan Halligan hanged himself did his father realize what the 13-year-old had been doing online.
Through three months’ worth of links and instant messages saved on his home computer, Ryan’s growing pain – and the callousness of his online tormentors – became clear. “You’re a loser,” one message jabbed. There were other taunts, Web searches on suicide, and, ultimately, threats to kill himself to get back at school bullies. “Tonight’s the night,” Ryan finally typed. “It’s about time,” the screen replied.

Philadelphia Inquirer


Bullying is nothing new, but it takes on a new and ominous tone in cyberspace. Adults are catching on.

By Leslie A. Pappas
Inquirer Staff Writer

Jan. 02, 2005 – Only after Ryan Halligan hanged himself did his father realize what the 13-year-old had been doing online.
Through three months’ worth of links and instant messages saved on his home computer, Ryan’s growing pain – and the callousness of his online tormentors – became clear. “You’re a loser,” one message jabbed. There were other taunts, Web searches on suicide, and, ultimately, threats to kill himself to get back at school bullies. “Tonight’s the night,” Ryan finally typed. “It’s about time,” the screen replied.

• Bullying has been around forever, but modern technologies have both broadened its venues and cloaked its practitioners. Instant messaging, Web journals, cell phones and e-mail let bullies chase victims into their homes, mock them anonymously, or slander them schoolwide with a single mouse click. There are few solid statistics about cyber bullying, but experts agree that it is spreading. “Cyber bullying is so new, people don’t have a clue,” said Bill Belsey, who runs a Canadian Web site called cyberbullying.ca.

Belsey first heard of cyber bullying a few years ago in Asia and Scandinavia, where mobile technologies were more advanced. Since then, reports have spread, taking on new forms as technology grows. Lagging behind are adults, who struggle to comprehend the problem, let alone combat it. Many parents focus on dangers from sexual predators and pornography yet remain oblivious to much of their children’s online world. Educators, meanwhile, scramble to block elusive online threats before they slip onto school grounds.

In Ryan’s case, it was school problems that followed him home through instant messages, deepening the bullying that had started during the day. Ryan latched on to the idea of killing himself as vengeance against those who had hurt him. “He was on a mission to just make these kids feel bad,” said his father, John Halligan. The father, though well-versed in technology, had no clue until it was too late. An IBM manager who built his own computers, Halligan, of Essex Junction, Vt., thought he knew the risks of letting his son have a computer in his bedroom. His ground rules were clear: no talking to strangers, no sharing of passwords or personal information. After Ryan’s death on Oct. 7, 2003, Halligan logged on at his son’s computer and discovered a world he never knew existed. Students with multiple screen names had left torrid messages that Halligan struggled to decipher. Clicking on his son’s saved Web links led to online journals where sixth- and seventh-grade girls bragged of sexual conquests. Other Web logs skewered classmates by exposing intimate secrets culled from private cyber chats. “These kids thought they had their own little private world and it was their own playground where they could do whatever they wanted,” Halligan said. “The problem is not just about pedophiles and strangers, but how [youths are] treating each other.”

• Ted Feinberg, assistant executive director of the National Association of School Psychologists in Bethesda, Md., said the goals of a cyber bully differ little from those of the traditional, in-your-face bully: “to torment, to intimidate, to frighten, to disparage.” But the safety of a computer screen can embolden even those who are otherwise meek, he said. In fact, many cyber bullies are former victims who use the computer to turn the tables on their tormentors. “What makes cyber bullying more insidious,” Feinberg said, “is that it can be, by and large, anonymous. You don’t know where the messages are coming from.” Such was the case last month for a 15-year-old in Delaware County, who, for safety reasons, didn’t want her name or school identified. Shortly after she switched from a private to a public school, her parents received an unsigned e-mail from a newly created Yahoo! account called [your_daughter]_is_headed_for_trouble. “Your daughter… bragged about drinking and how she can whore around now that she’s a public school girl… Maybe you can spend the tuition you saved on therapy,” the e-mail said. “It just made us sick,” the girl’s mother said. “It was basically just like throwing a bomb.” A school investigation turned up nothing. “This could have come from anybody, anywhere,” a school official told the girl’s mother in an e-mail. “It made me feel incredibly attacked,” said the girl, who suspects a former classmate who had picked on her. “It was so incredibly untrue.” Defaming messages also pop up on the Web, often on free online teen journals or blogging sites.

Earlier this month at Titus Elementary School in Warrington, Bucks County, sixth graders listened intently to a story about Alex, a teen in the county whose classmates created a Web site titled simply “Reasons to Hate Alex.” Mary Worthington of the Network of Victim Assistance in Bucks County said Alex agreed to share the story as part of a new cyber bully training program, which was created for schools to meet a growing demand. Schools struggle with the issue because much of the Internet activity that creates problems at school begins at home. “I would encourage parents to be as close to Perry Mason as they can,” said Linda Sember, assistant principal at Beverly Hills Middle School in Upper Darby, Delaware County, who has responded to several cyber bullying incidents over the last year, including one death threat that prompted the school to summon police. But many parents don’t, or won’t, pay enough attention, said Rachel Simmons, author of Odd Girl Out: The Hidden Culture of Aggression in Girls. As a result, the Internet – like lunchrooms, rest rooms and bus stops – has become an unsupervised place where bullies can rule. Parents “often use their ignorance of technology to excuse themselves for not knowing what their children are doing when they’re online,” Simmons said. “What happens as a result of that attitude is that kids have appropriated the Internet as this place that belongs to them – with their own rules, their own language, their own justice.” Nancy Willard, executive director of the Center for Safe and Responsible Internet Use, based in Eugene, Ore., agrees. “The gap between parental understanding of what is going on online and what children report is significant in every study,” Willard said. “Kids aren’t telling their parents about what’s happening online, and parents aren’t making it their business to find out.” Maria Burdsall, a mother of three boys in Warrington Township, is one exception. She uses parental software to monitor her children’s online activity, frequently checking what sites they’ve visited or when they’ve gone online. Burdsall acknowledges that her vigilance has not been geared toward cyber bullying. “What scares me,” she said, is the prospect of her kids “accidentally stumbling on a porn site.” But she has made it clear, especially to her 11-year-old, Michael, that she’s watching. “He knows I can keep track,” Burdsall said. “And he knows I mean business.”

 

How to Battle Cyber Bullying

Parents • Keep computers in a common room. • Understand and monitor your child’s Internet use. • Discuss “netiquette” and online safety with your child. • Ask questions if your child seems upset after going online. Online users • Never give out passwords or PINs to friends. • Don’t send messages when you are angry. • Never say something in an e-mail that you wouldn’t say to somebody’s face. If you are a target • Do not open, forward, read, or respond to messages from cyber bullies. • Save all messages as evidence. • Tell a trusted adult about the problem. • If you are threatened with harm, call the police.

SOURCES:

http://www.isafe.org

http://www.novabucks.org

http://www.cyberbullying.ca

http://www.cyberbully.org

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