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Cyberspace: Bullying’s New Turf

The last time bullying seized the national dialogue was in 1999, when Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold walked into Columbine High School in Colorado and killed 15 people, including themselves. The school massacre, the fourth deadliest in U.S. history, led the nation to look hard at the link between bullying and violent acts. More than a decade later, a surge of high-profile suicides in 2010 reveals that the bullying turf has spread online.

“Cyberbullying” was born from new technologies popular with post-millennial youth, including text messaging and social networking on sites like MySpace, Facebook, Formspring, and Twitter. The most recent data from the Cyberbullying Research Center, formed in 2004, shows that 20% of 12-to-18-year-olds now report being cyberbullied, but other surveys put that number closer to 43%. The stats are troubling, although CRC co-director Dr. Justin Patchin points out, “Much more traditional bullying still takes place than cyberbullying. As much as cyberbullying has been in the news, still more youth bully and are bullied in the old-fashioned ways.”

Yet the Internet has amplified the old problem of bullying. Modern connectivity makes it easy to launch anonymous attacks seen by thousands of people, extending the victim’s humiliation and exposure far beyond the schoolyard.

Bullying awareness surges in 2010
National concern over bullying surged in 2010: Searches on Yahoo! for “bullying” spiked in July and October, as the media began reporting teens killing themselves in response to online harassment. The first death hit the news early in the year. When 15-year-old Phoebe Prince and her family migrated from Ireland to South Hadley, Massachusetts, she was labeled an “Irish slut” and taunted in person and online. In January, she hanged herself. Nine months later, 18-year-old Rutgers University freshman Tyler Clementi, an accomplished cellist, jumped off the George Washington Bridge after his dorm roommate secretly filmed him having a sexual encounter with another man and broadcast it online.

Clementi’s untimely death came on the heels of four widely reported teen suicides, three in September alone, by boys who suffered anti-gay bullying: 15-year-old Justin Aaberg of Minnesota, 17-year-old Cody Barker of Wisconsin, 15-year-old Billy Lucas of Indiana, and 13-year-old Seth Walsh of California. As more gay students have come out, they have suffered more than their straight counterparts. Early in 2010, before the series of gay suicides began, LiveScience reported on studies that show that 44% of gay and 40% of lesbian teenagers report being bullied at school — a significant amount higher than their straight counterparts. Even more shocking, one in two gay teens regularly experiences cyberbullying. And there have even been concerns that the media is creating a gay suicide “contagion” by romanticizing the deaths.

On the offense: federal guidelines
Following the Columbine shootings, schools around the nation had introduced programs that helped reduce physical bullying by 7 percentage points (2003 vs. 2008).  Has the Web become a release valve for pent-up childhood cruelty? There’s no proof of that, although CRC co-director Dr. Sameer Hinduju can understand how tempting this theory might be. “My belief is that if physical bullying has gone down from 2003 to 2008, it may very well be because youth are more comfortable being cruel to each other using technology from a distance,” Hinduju writes in an email. “But our work at the Cyberbullying Research Center has not seen significant [corresponding] growth in cyberbullying over the years we have studied it.”

Still, the situation spurred the U.S. Department of Education to host the first ever federal summit on bullying in August. “I have to tell you,” said secretary of Education Arne Duncan at the event, “I have very little patience for the arguments that kids will be kids and there is not much that schools can do to make schools much safer. I hate the excuses, and I hate the passivity.” Two months later, the agency issued new guidelines for combating bullying at schools, colleges, and universities in October. This “Dear Colleague” letter, from Russlynn Ali, Obama’s assistant secretary for civil rights, asserts that educators should treat bullying as a possible violation of federal civil rights laws. Some gay-rights advocates were encouraged by the letter, which suggests that Title IX could extend to protect sexual orientation. The guidelines state: “It can be sex discrimination if students are harassed either for exhibiting what is perceived as a stereotypical characteristic for their sex, or for failing to conform to stereotypical notions of masculinity and femininity.”

Forty-four states have laws that address bullying, and 30 of those laws mention electronic forms of harassment. However, these laws mostly require schools to have an anti-bullying policy but offer no specifics on what the policy should be. Using the law to combat cyberbullying can also be a tricky business, riddled with questions of First Amendment rights and — in the cases of harassment-related suicides — criminal intent. In Newsweek, Jessica Bennett warned of overly protective parents turning normal childish behaviors into a crime, while Helen A.S. Popkin on MSNBC defended the right to be mean as a form of free speech. Emily Bazelon on Slate even wrote in-depth pieces on Phoebe Prince, asserting that the teen was mentally unstable before she was picked on, and that the garden-variety girl drama she experienced could not be blamed for her death. Bazelon had a similar take on Clementi, saying that there’s no way to prove the online humiliation drove him to kill himself.

Clementi’s roommate, Dharun Ravi, and Ravi’s girlfriend, Molly Wei, have been charged with invasion of privacy and could face five years in prison. In the Prince case, six teenagers were charged with a variety of crimes, including statutory rape, civil rights violations resulting in bodily injury, criminal harassment, disturbing a school assembly, and stalking.

The case against 50-year-old Lori Drew proves how slippery such criminal trials can be. Drew was accused of making a MySpace profile to harass her daughter’s classmate, Megan Meier, who killed herself in 2006 in response to a particularly cruel message. The prosecution lacked evidence for harassment or stalking charges, and Drew was acquitted of conspiracy. She was convicted of three misdemeanor computer-fraud charges, which were thrown out by a judge last year.

The medium is the message
Parents of cyberbullying victims feel particularly helpless. School officials often refuse to get involved, as they consider the Internet out of their jurisdiction. Some parents simply don’t understand how to use text messaging or social networking, while others resort to monitoring their childrens’ cell phones and Facebook wall, the sort of parental control that has teens seething with resentment over the lack of privacy from their parents’ prying eyes. It’s likely that some parents and school officials wish they could make all these online social networks vanish.

But others have decided to turn the bullies’ weapons against them, using the Web to spread anti-bullying messages. First, Seattle newspaper columnist Dan Savage launched his It Gets Better project to tell gay kids that their suffering won’t last. The YouTube videos feature adults such as celebrities Chris Colfer, Adam Lambert, and Tim Gunn, as well as Fort Worth councilman Joel Burns, Oral Roberts’s grandson Randy Roberts Potts, and company employees (LinkedIn and Pixar) . All share their struggles growing up in homophobic environments and the acceptance they found after high school. Straight celebrities (Janet Jackson) and politicians (including President Obama and Cindi McCain, whose husband, Senator John McCain, led the filibuster against repealing “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”), simply express their love and support for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered (LGBT) teens, encouraging those feeling distressed or suicidal to call the Trevor Project hotline.

Then 29-year-old Brian Elliott, a recent graduate of Harvard Business School and Harvard Kennedy School, got inspired to launch his own social network, Friendfactor, to garner support for LGBT equality. “I realized that gay friends were so much more important [to many people] than gay rights,” Elliot said. “My friends didn’t know that I could be legally fired in 29 states for being gay and that I can be legally evicted from my house in over 30 states.” Elliott’s concept struck a chord on Facebook, and he launched the beta version of Friendfactor in November.

Challenging the “inevitability” of suicide
Some psychologists and suicide experts say that these social efforts may not be enough. In an article by Medill Reports, Ron Slaby, a Harvard professor of psychology who is a senior researcher at the Center on Media and Child Health, admonished reporters for failing to emphasize the preventable nature of both bullying and suicides. He even asserted that the It Gets Better project doesn’t go far enough: We should be telling teens and adults to make the kids’ lives better now, instead of telling the teens to hold hope for the future.

Anara Guard, a senior advisor at the Suicide Prevention Resource Center, raised the alarm about the normalization of suicide in the same article. “The coverage that we’re seeing is making it seem like if you’re gay, it’s inevitable that you’ll be bullied, and if you’re bullied, you’ll inevitably feel suicidal,” Guard said. “And that’s not the case. Suicide is not a normal response.”

Bruce Shapiro, the executive director of the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma, confronted the backlash against suicide victims who were dubbed “mentally unstable,” calling the attacks insensitive, a form of victim-blaming that would never pass muster in the court of law. Shapiro cites studies showing that bullying traumatizes the victims and leads to psychological problems including depression, anxiety, despair, isolation, and suicidal thoughts. Shapiro asserts that bullying is a form of torture, plain and simple, and not a normal rite of passage — a sentiment that the Obama White House has stressed recently.

Teaching the bullies
The most effective means of preventing bullying is to teach children how to put themselves in others’ shoes at an early age. In fact, a former kindergarten teacher, Vivian Paley, author of 1993’s “You Can’t Say You Can’t Play,” conducted a surprisingly successful experiment in her classroom. In 1996, she explained to Ira Glass on NPR’s “This American Life” that she had noticed certain children were consistently rejected from playing with the others. Her kindergarteners were apprehensive (and a little relieved) when she told them about the “you can’t say you can’t play” rule, but within a few weeks, they had adapted it completely, no more exclusion.

In a December New York Times article, a mother named Judy recounts how shocked and disturbed she was to find her teenage daughter was behaving as a cold, calculating bully to another student she had deemed “a whore.” Her solution for finally getting through to her daughter? Buying her a puppy.

Eventually the mother asked, “Would you want anyone to be mean to your dog? Throw rocks at Foxy? How do you think other parents feel when something mean happens to their children?” Judy told the Times that this was the breakthrough moment. “She broke down crying. That’s when I think she finally understood what she had done.”

–Lisa Hix

Lisa Hix is a freelance writer and former Yahoo! editor who’s been published in the San Francisco Chronicle, Glamour, and Bust. She’s currently an associate editor at Collectors Weekly and a KQED Arts blogger. Find her on Twitter.

Helpful anti-bullying links
• “BullyingInfo.org,” Department of Education
• “How Not to Raise a Bully: The Early Roots of Empathy,” Time
• “Internet Safety for Kids,” Good Housekeeping

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