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Monday, December 29, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 21.0° F  Fair
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Beware of cyberbullies
Advancing technology makes it harder than ever to protect our kids - especially from each other
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Credit:Doug Boehm

Even looking back on it now, Deb Archer did everything right. Like most parents today, the Dane County working mother carefully tiptoed the line between Internet safety and privacy.

Archer put the family computer in her home office, where she could keep a casual but deliberate eye on her 16-year-old daughter's Internet activities. And while her daughter's Facebook account was set to private, Archer had the password. She didn't check, though, in an act of trust.

"My daughter is a good kid," says Archer. "A nice kid, a cautious kid." They had a solid relationship, as far as teen girls and their mothers go.

There was a boy at school. He had some "obvious emotional and mental problems," and other kids picked on him. Archer's daughter did not. The boy developed a crush.

In person, the boy mostly kept his distance. On the Internet, however, he was much braver.

Archer's daughter accepted the boy's Facebook friendship request, and shortly thereafter he began sending her sexually provocative messages. Facebook messages are different from wall posts in that they are not public, and so Archer, in glancing at her daughter's profile, never saw them. The girl hoped the problem would resolve itself and never told her mother.

The messages continued for almost a year and, as we'll see, reached a point where lives may have been at risk. But what happened is really not all that different from what happens every day, as young people embrace technologies that ramp up their ability to wound each other, with varying degrees of deliberateness.

National headlines are increasingly peppered with tales of cyberbullying. In Missouri, 13-year-old Megan Meier hung herself in 2006 after being bullied on MySpace; the mother of one of her friends was charged but acquitted. Cyberbullying was also part of the harassment that led to the suicide this January of 15-year-old Phoebe Prince in Massachusetts, for which nine teenagers have been charged.

Though it's these extreme examples that catch the mass media's attention, experts say cyberbullying pervades nearly every school in America today. For most kids, electronic aggression through texting and the Internet has become a frightening norm.

"It's no longer online or offline with these kids, it's just air," says Dr. Parry Aftab, a New York-based Internet safety expert. "It's no longer going online, it's just talking."

The modern age of communication leaves children open to possible bullying 24 hours a day. Even if parents keep their kids away from computers, they may still have access to handheld devices with Wi-Fi capabilities, from iPods to videogames to incredibly smart "smart phones."

"Twenty-four percent of the teens we polled sleep with their cell phones," says Aftab. "Kids have more power in their backpacks, pockets and purses than big corporations had a few years ago, and they're hurting each other in a whole bunch of ways."

It's everywhere

Aftab, an attorney, is the founder of WiredSafety.org, "the world's largest online safety and help group," for which she serves pro bono. She's been working closely with kids since 1995, and her site offers dozens of downloadable resources.

Aftab says cyberbullying often starts by the third grade. Extortion is the weapon of choice as children use email, instant messaging and kid-centric websites, steal each other's passwords, and threaten to spread personal information. As Aftab frames it, "If you don't do this, I'm gonna tell your secrets."

By the sixth grade, extortion has mostly given way to more traditional bullying - prank calls and texts, rumor spreading, attacks, profiles and groups created solely to ridicule others. But in high school it often reemerges as sexual extortion, especially the sending of sexually explicit images.

"We're seeing about a third of kids are involved in some type of sexting," says Aftab. "They've either received an image, they've taken one, or they have a friend who has."

By the time young people get to college, there are sites such as CollegeAcb.com, formerly known as Juicy Campus, where students are encouraged to talk smack about each other anonymously. The site, which is searchable by campus, reportedly gets nearly 1 million page impressions per day. A quick scan in April of the UW-Madison message board yielded a distressing level of vulgarity and gossip naming specific students.

Interestingly, high school and college students think of themselves as too old for cyberbullying, so they are caught off-guard when they become victims. Aftab serves on MTV's advisory board, which recently launched the website athinline.org to educate teens on the dangers of sexting. She also updated the curriculum for Liz Claiborne's "Love Is Not Abuse" campaign to include digital dating violence.

Of the 40,000 middle school students Aftab's organization has polled over the years, 85% report having experienced some cyberbullying and harassment.

Dr. Justin Patchin, co-director of the Cyberbullying Research Center, verifies the enormity of the problem.

"Eighty percent of middle-schoolers can tell you about someone in their school it has happened to," says Patchin, an associate professor of criminal justice at UW-Eau Claire. "And it's just as bad here in Wisconsin as it is everywhere else."

Patchin and his research partner, Dr. Sameer Hinduja of Florida Atlantic University, have been studying cyberbullying since 2002. They founded the research center last year.

"We learned very quickly that it was happening, and that it was significantly impacting kids' lives," says Patchin. "More striking is that they weren't telling anybody about it, especially not the adults in their lives. We learned very early on there was a story that needed to be told, and the victims themselves weren't comfortable telling it."

Patchin and Hinduja, in cooperation with school districts, have formally surveyed over 15,000 adolescents across America over the last seven years. Based on random samplings, they estimate that 8% to 12% of middle school students have experienced cyberbullying in the last 30 days, and 20% have experienced it in their lifetimes.

"Put it this way," says Patchin of the frequency of cyberbullying in Wisconsin, "I haven't been in a school where it's not occurring."

Big problem for schools

The Madison Metropolitan School District blocks MySpace at school, but allows Facebook and YouTube because of their educational applications. And while cell phones are prohibited, many students have them anyway, and some have even mastered how to blindly send text messages through their pockets.

"We see it all," says Rick Reynolds, assistant principal of Cherokee Heights Middle School in Madison. "Facebook and MySpace accounts where kids are posting hateful things about people they don't like, or organizing community fights. When I have to deal with a behavioral issue, it's a pretty good bet that at some point in the conversation a reference will be made to a text, instant message, or a Facebook or MySpace page."

Reynolds, who's been in his position for a decade, says cyberbullying is becoming more prevalent: "It's happening more and more [today] than it did even a year ago."

One of the most frequent problems is the use of texting and the Internet to organize fights. It can escalate a conflict between two students into a show that dozens or even hundreds of students want to attend.

"They'll type, 'We're gonna settle this thing at the South Transfer Point on Monday at 3 p.m.,'" says Reynolds. "When the police roll up and try to figure out who's doing what to whom, there's a mass of people around they didn't bank on. It's problematic for law enforcement and schools."

Officer Kelly Beckett of the Madison Police Department agrees. "It starts with trash talking on MySpace and grounds out in the physical world," she says. "Kids can send a text message to 20 of their friends in a second and they all show up at the East Transfer Point for a fight."

Beckett, Sergeant June Grohler and other members of the Madison Police Department now devote a significant portion of their time to teaching Internet safety. In 2009 they began offering free classes on the subject. They also give presentations at schools, PTO meetings and elsewhere.

"We encourage parents and schools to come forward," says Grohler. "If you have a child being bullied through a cell phone or the Internet, it's no different to us than if they're doing it face to face."

But cracking down on cyberbullying is easier said than done, in part because, while it's a big problem for schools, it technically falls outside of their jurisdiction.

"Cyberbullying is a big issue, but it generally occurs outside of school," says Luis Yudice, the Madison school district's head of safety and security. "We make sure staff is trained on what to do. We never turn our backs. We take it all seriously, even when we don't have legal jurisdiction to suspend or expel. If it's a threat to safety, we call the police."

Wisconsin does not have a cyberbullying law, but Wisconsin Statute 947.013 - general harassment - applies to digital use. In addition, the MPD utilizes two other state statutes: Unlawful Use of a Telephone and Unlawful Use of Computerized Communication Systems. When all else fails, they say, there's disorderly conduct.

But oftentimes, says Grohler, the involvement of police can make a difference even if no charges are filed. "If your child feels threatened and you call us, and we show up at the bully's door in full uniform, that's often enough to stop the problem right there."

That may work for younger kids, but not necessarily for older ones. Given the depth and breadth of cyberbullying cases, prosecution is a slippery fish.

"Sometimes it's not clear what chargeable crime, if any, would be applicable," says Dane County District Attorney Brian Blanchard. "Certainly if it rises to the level of stalking, we consider those charges."

An increasingly disturbing trend, says Blanchard, are "text attacks" on alleged victims of sexual assault, where after the attack a victim is harassed with repeated text messages by the perpetrator and/or his friends.

Blanchard cites two recent cases, both involving female high school students who were victims of these text attacks. Both cases, after investigation, were not prosecuted because they didn't fit existing statutory definitions of prohibited conduct. He says the abusive behavior kids perpetrate against one another, while devastating, often does not merit juvenile or criminal court prosecution.

"In sum, we see all manner of hostile, humiliating or harassing emails, texting and social network posting," says Blanchard. "But fitting that behavior into chargeable crimes is not always possible, and sometimes even if theoretically possible is not a good use of the blunt tools of the criminal justice system."

Continuing to escalate

Wisconsin's Department of Public Instruction is nearly finished implementing "Time to React," a new state-mandated anti-bullying curriculum. The program for grades six through eight includes a formal lesson on electronic aggression.

After-school groups including the Girl Scouts and Girls Inc. now address cyberbullying, online reputation and digital dating violence. The local group Fund for Women brought Parry Aftab in as a speaker this spring and is attempting to organize a "Wired Moms" summit in Madison.

Adults are taking note, and kids are getting the message, but the behavior continues to escalate.

In the case of Deb Archer and her daughter, the problem that began through a schoolhouse association eventually spiraled into something frightening and dangerous.

The boy pestering Archer's daughter with Facebook messages at one point emailed a friend, saying he would kill himself if Archer's daughter didn't like him. The friend told Archer's daughter, who finally confessed to her mother.

Archer called the local police department in her Dane County city. "They were very gracious," she says, "but they said since the boy lived in a neighboring community there was no jurisdiction."

Archer then called the police in the community where the boy lived. "They were also very gracious but said since Internet issues were happening in space, not face to face, they couldn't help."

So Archer contacted officials at her daughter's school, who she says "immediately sprang into action." They held a meeting with Archer's family, several administrators and the school's in-house police officer. It was in this meeting that Archer's daughter revealed a cruel Facebook group other students had created making fun of the boy. The group had about 40 members. The school met with those students, contacted Facebook and had the group removed.

"The school was cooperative, the boy's family was cooperative, everybody was on board," says Archer. "It stopped for quite awhile."

But several months later, it started again. This time Archer knew, and encouraged her daughter to do something about it, but she wouldn't. "She just didn't want to make a big deal out of it again," says Archer. "She felt sorry for the boy because of his social and emotional challenges, and because he was a cyberbullying victim, too."

That spring in the cafeteria, the boy was found waving a piece of paper; it was a list of students he said he wanted to kill. Archer's daughter and several of her friends were on the list. The school suspended the boy, but only briefly, citing his right to go to school.

"We were obviously concerned for everyone's safety," says Archer. "I researched our legal options and found there weren't a lot. Wisconsin doesn't have laws about cyberbullying. I contacted my legislators but couldn't get any traction."

There were no further incidents after the boy came back to school, and Archer's daughter graduated the next year. Archer thinks most parents have no idea what occurs in their children's cyberspace.

"Parents make the mistake of thinking, 'That's their world, let them be free,'" she says. "In the end, both my daughter and this boy were victims of different types of cyberbullying. Though it was a terrible experience, we were fortunate. We all know these situations can end dreadfully."

What can be done to minimize the threat

Though stalking, fights and physical threats of violence must always be taken seriously and reported, much of cyberbullying occurs on a more subtle, emotionally abusive level. Experts say many kids don't report cyberbullying because they don't want their parents making a federal case out of the experience.

"Only five percent of those we polled admitted to ever telling their parents if they were cyberbullied," says Parry Aftab, an Internet safety expert who runs the website WiredSafety.org. "They worried they'd overreact, get dramatic or take away their device privileges."

Though parents may throw up their hands and laugh about the current generation's tech-savvy ways, it's a mistake to forget that kids, though skilled, are still just kids.

"As much as we think kids know about technology, they really don't have the media and digital literacy we assume they do," says Aftab. "Their brains aren't mature enough to think big-picture and consequences. They have no impulse control, and they let their guards down easily. Kids have gotten smarter over the years, but they're still putting themselves at risk."

So what's to be done? Sites such as WiredSafety.org and Cyberbullying.us include downloadable toolkits and action plans for parents, school administrators, police officers and kids themselves. Madison police officers tell parents about sites such as MyMobileWatchdog and WebWatcher, which allow you, for a hefty fee, to remotely spy on your child's online and cellular activities.

Most experts, however, say awareness and a solid relationship with your child is the best safeguard against cyberbullying.

"Keeping the computer in a central location won't give you anything," says Aftab. "You need to have a good relationship with your child. You need to teach your kids to use the filter between their ears. Make sure they don't use technology before they're ready for it. Keep an eye on what that is, know the technology, and understand how it can be abused."

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