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Friday, October 17, 2008

Online harassment: From one who's been there

Lisa's experience of "cyberbullying" is probably the most common - some anonymous person(s) who made up "random screennames" and sent her IMs saying "stupid things" like "you're stupid" or "you're fat," she told a reporter from the Digital Natives project at Harvard University's Berkman Center. Though it probably wasn't cyberbullying as defined by researchers (see this), it certainly made her wonder: "Are my friends really my friends?" It was "kind of an uncomfortable ordeal because I never knew who it was in the end, but it wasn't as bad as being made fun of in real life could've been," Lisa, a University of Massachusetts, Amherst, student from New Jersey, said in an audio interview.

That last point gets at the distinction between online harassment and cyberbullying, which has a more hurtful connection to school life. In real life, Lisa says, "it's hurtful because it's direct and it's personal and you’re standing there and it hurts. If it's on the Internet, you can easily disregard it because it's not personal, they don't know who your are, and they can't offend you because they're not talking about you - they're just trying to give a comeback. So if it's on the Internet, it's kind of like you have more power, you're in much more control, it's kind of like a big shield."

There you have possible talking (or coaching) points for parents whose kids are being harassed online. As Lisa points out, these experiences are indeed a big deal when you're in the middle of them, and they do raise all kinds of unsettling questions about who your friends are, but if they're anonymous meanness, a parent might say: You can choose to make that same anonymity that they're hiding behind your "shield," as Lisa put it. They have no idea how their words affected you, so you're in control - you can choose to let the words roll off and not react. Because reaction is very likely exactly what the harasser wants, and you can decide whether s/he gets it." The uncertainty that goes with incidents like this is rarely unique to the incident; it's more like a constant of pre-adolescent life that spikes each time such an incident happens. As tweens learn social norms, figure out and create their school's social scene, and explore identity, they're also learning how to cope with the uncertainty and other challenges associated with the wider circle of relationships in adult life.

I hope parents will actually get the chance to have this conversation with their children, since kids so rarely report online harassment - only 10% of 12-to-17-year-olds tell parents or other adults, according to research from UCLA (see this post), which also found that the harassment Lisa described was the most frequently occurring kind among the young people in its survey. Harsher cyberbullying may call for outside professional help.

A much tougher story that does fit the emerging definition of cyberbullying was told in the Long Beach (Calif.) Herald this week. For details on the slightly one-sided telling of the story (because the alleged bully's family declined to comment), please read the article. But the outcomes so far indicate a lot of maturity on the part of the girl, "Mary" (15), who experienced the online abuse. After having to leave her school (she is still being home-schooled a year later), "Mary said the experience made her stronger, but only after a period of depression." She told the Herald that, even though people tell her bullying is "part of life," she feels that it is not and should not be. She also told the paper that she could handle having her experience told publicly if it could help somebody else.

Solution creation

One of the conditions of cyberspace that enables harassment and bullying is disinhibition, a word psychologists use to describe what happens when we lose the face-to-face part of communication. It's like suddenly, in this environment, we're more robots than humans. So it seems to me we'll be able to mitigate cyberbullying when we begin to reduce the disinhibition effect and increase the empathy factor - when it begins to sink in with children (everybody, really) that behind those text messages, avatars, profile comments, and IMs are real people with real feelings.

Cyber Bullying: A Prevention Curriculum for Grades 6-12 takes disinhibition head on - with collaborative learning that teaches empathy. The curriculum (book plus printable materials on a CD) - by educators Susan Limber, PhD, Robin Kowalski, PhD, and Patricia W. Agatston, PhD - is designed for schools, but parents and community-service programs will find it helpful too. At the core of the curriculum are true bullying stories like some that have appeared in NetFamilyNews in the past few years. The titles are pretty self-explanatory: "Boy Found in Locker after Three Hours"; "Being Excluded Online" (peers defriend a girls and stop IM-ing and texting); "Hip Hop Dancing Girl" (who unthinkingly videotaped herself and later found a peer posted the video online for all to see); "Tired of Being Bullied at School, Teen Strikes Back Online" (with a defaming Web site about the bully and faces charges); "Teens Facing Felony Charges for Cyberbullying Revenge" (posting a video of their retaliation beating of the peer on a video-sharing site).

With the curriculum, students lead discussions, role-play, write journal entries about the incidents, design anti-bullying Web sites, etc. There's a complete training module for teachers. For school administrators and resource officers, the curriculum goes beyond education to resources for dealing with this on-campus, off-campus challenge. Supporting materials include boilerplate letters to parents, incident reports, acceptable-use policies; guidelines for choosing students leaders; and legal information, including forms for evidence-gathering.

The curriculum is based on the holistic ("whole school") Olweus Bullying Prevention Program that seeks to involve all stakeholders (at school, home, and in the community) not only in reducing and preventing bullying but also improving eliminating in preventing and reducing bullying problem but also improving "peer relations at school."

Related links

  • So international. If anyone had any doubts that bullying is a universal problem, here's news from Bangalore, India: The Daily News & Analysis reports that a three-year study involving 1,200 students and 600 teachers, 59% of boys and 65% of girls (ages 14-18) said bullying was occurring at their school.

  • Toward "social intelligence": earlier NetFamilyNews coverage here and in an item on "stalking" as a form of social intelligence-gathering.

  • "'Cyberbullying' better defined": Researchers cite three factors that escalate it beyond the online harassment Lisa experienced (above): repeated aggression; power imbalance; ties to "real life" (school life, for the most part).

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