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Friday, November 16, 2007

Extreme cyberbullying: US case comes to light

Unlike other extreme cyberbullying cases I've written about, this one occurred in the US and ended in a teenager's suicide. In this case, covered this week in a suburban newspaper in the St. Louis area, Megan Meier, 13, committed suicide allegedly because a 16-year-old boy had changed his mind and no longer wanted to be her friend. It was a cyberbullying case because the "relationship," from beginning to end, was conducted entirely online. Adding to the tragedy, the "boy" never existed. As in the New Zealand cases, the "owner" of the social-networking profile around which the "relationship" developed was a fictional character.

What's different about this case - and what makes it even more perplexing - is that the cyberbully, the creator of the fictional profile and relationship, was an adult. The mother of a teenage girl who had parted ways with Megan allegedly created a MySpace profile for "Josh." The story she made up - because, she told the paper, she wanted to see what Megan would say about her daughter online - was that "Josh" was new in town, being home-schooled, came from a "broken home," and had no phone number. Helped by her daughter and another teenage girl, the mother reportedly had this fictitious boy contact Megan through her MySpace profile and ask her to "friend" him. The girl, who had been diagnosed with attention deficit disorder and struggled with being overweight, reportedly was thrilled - for the six weeks last fall that the Josh profile's creators led her on. She committed suicide on Oct. 16, 2006.

No criminal charges have been filed, the Suburban Journals reports, and the parents "do not plan to file a civil lawsuit." A police report has been filed, but local law enforcement told the paper there was no charge that fit the case. There was a brief FBI investigation, the Journals reports. It spoke of problems the FBI had accessing content on the family's hard drive, but it didn't mention whether the FBI contacted MySpace with a subpoena for evidence on its servers. The town's working on making online harassment a crime, a "Class B misdemeanor," the Journals reported separately, "punishable by 90 days in jail and/or a $500 fine." At the state level, that would be a Class A misdemeanor, possibly leading to a year's imprisonment and/or a $1,000 fine, the Journals added. Missouri State Rep. Cynthia Davis, R-19th District, of O'Fallon (Mo.) said she would explore proposing state legislation but acknowledged that cyberbullying is a problem that goes well beyond town, state, and even national jurisdictions.

The case could eventually have national implications, starting at least with raising public awareness. The hundreds of individual responses posted below the article fill about 90% of the Web page, and the story apparently has caught national media attention - CNN was to interview Megan's parents this week, the Journals said. added that local officials said they would call on the federal government to address cyberbullying.

Related links

  • On the latest US cyberbullying research by the Pew Internet and American Life Project
  • "Cyberethics training needed"
  • Various aspects of the cyberbullying problem
  • "'eBullies': Coping with cyberbullying"
  • "Predators vs. cyberbullies: Reality check"
  • "Extreme cyberbullying: 2 cases"
  • Cyberbullying & Cyberthreats: Responding to the Challenge of Online Social Aggression, Threats, and Distress, by Nancy E. Willard of the Center for Safe & Responsible Internet Use
  • - a help site by award-winning Canadian educator Bill Belsey
  • - a research site by Profs. Sameer Hinduja Florida Atlantic University and Justin Patchin at University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire.

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  • Japan's cyberbullying problem

    Bullying can be 24/7 in Japan too, but there it's as much over the phone as on the Web in this country where 96% of high school students have mobile phones. Reuters cites the experience of now 19-year-old Makoto, who stopped going to school it was getting so bad. But even after that he "became anorexic and rarely emerged from his room for nearly half a year," and he attempted suicide twice. Reuters adds that "the problem drew public attention in July, when an 18-year-old boy leapt to his death at his high school in Kobe, in western Japan, after classmates posted a nude photo of him on a Web site and repeatedly sent him emails demanding money." Meanwhile, the Associated Press reports that Disney is partnering with Softbank, Japan's No. 3 mobile carrier, to offer cellphones complete with Disney content and services for kids in that country.

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    Thursday, November 15, 2007

    For videogamers' parents

    Less than half - 43% - of parents of kids who play video games play them with their children, the Associated Press reports, citing a just-released AOL/AP survey. "Overall, the survey highlighted how pervasive - yet age-related - interest in electronic gaming is today." The survey found that 81% of children 4-17 play computer or video games at least occasionally, compared with 38% of adults. As for those parents who aren't familiar with the games their children play, there's an alternative. They can read reviews of the games at a new site called, which is a great idea. Surprisingly, a Los Angeles Times article about the site makes no mention of another helpful service for parents of videogamers:, where they can look up any game's rating (the site of the Entertainment Software Rating Board). Type a game's title into its search engine box - e.g., Halo 3 - and its rating will turn up (for this one, it's "M" for "Mature," for violence and blood and gore). The ratings guide adds a little detail, e.g., the appropriate-age recommendation for M games: 17+.

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    Videogames: Great teachers for good & bad

    They are very effective teaching tools, a new study found, including for teaching aggression. "Students who played multiple violent video games actually learned through those games to produce greater hostile actions and aggressive behaviors over a span of six months," reports Science Daily, citing a study of almost 2,500 young people - "Violent Video Games as Exemplary Teachers: A Conceptual Analysis" - to be published soon in the Journal of Youth and Adolescence. It worked with 430 kids in grades 3-5, 607 in grades 8 and 9, and 1,441 students with an average age of 19, assessing "aggressive thoughts and self-reported fights, and their media habits - including violent video game exposure. Teachers and peers were also asked to rate the participants' aggressive behavior." With the grade-school students, "playing multiple violent videogames increased their risk of being highly aggressive … by 73%, when compared to those who played a mix of violent and non-violent games, and by 263% compared to those who played only non-violent games." The study's authors are father and son J. Ronald Gentile, distinguished teaching professor emeritus of educational psychology at the University of Buffalo, State University of New York, and Douglas Gentile, assistant professor of psychology at Iowa State University. At the University of Victoria in Canada, researchers Kathy Sanford and Leanna Madill have some comments on the kinds of literacy videogames can teach.

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    Wednesday, November 14, 2007

    Bebo's part in differentiation trend

    Bebo stands out as a great example of how social sites are differentiating themselves. It's moving from being purely about social networking to being a social-media platform, as The Guardian puts it. For one thing, the site (based in San Francisco but huge in the UK, with 10.7 million "regular users" there), it's specializing in social TV - a kind of hybrid of reality TV and social networking. "A new reality series from Big Brother producer Endemol follows the fortunes of six young people as they travel the world," The Guardian reports. "But you won't find it on BBC 3 or Channel 4. The Gap Year is online social network Bebo's third original content commission in six months; part of a bold strategy raising eyebrows among programme-makers and broadcasters." This is different from other social sites, which generally host user-generated ("amateur") video, TV supplied by traditional programmers, or advertiser-produced video. What Bebo offers is attractive to both young users, who like to be involved in the programming - to customize it, in a way - and to advertisers, who can get closer to "viewers" (or, in effect, "co-producers") than ever before. The Financial Times quotes Bebo international president Joanna Shields as saying that other social sites are more like a communications device, while Bebo is more like a media player. The service is also partnering with traditional media companies, the FT says. "Bebo’s Open Media initiative will allow companies such as the BBC and CBS to make their video content available on Bebo’s site, using their own media players and selling their own advertising around the content if they wish." Here's coverage from a CNET reporter's blog too.

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    Sex-trafficking in Canada, US

    This story about sex trafficking in the Edmonton Sun is not about teen social networkers, it's about adults. But I'm including it this week as an extreme example of how vulnerable young people whose brains aren't fully developed can be found online, then victimized (prefrontal cortexes, or the executive part of brains, aren't developed till we're in our early 20s - see this at the US's National Institute of Mental Health). Edmonton "city cops are investigating two suspected human-trafficking rings believed to be part of an international network that enslaves hundreds of young Albertans each year, many of whom are forced into the sex trade in Las Vegas," the Sun reports. A police officer told the Sun that, though human-trafficking groups have operated in western Canada for "at least 20 years," they're now recruiting on social-networking sites too, "choosing naïve or vulnerable victims for 'grooming' who are right around 18 years old in order to avoid detection by authorities looking for predators after underage kids." [See also "How to recognize grooming" and "Profile of a teen online victim."]

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    Tuesday, November 13, 2007

    Clear-eyed look at Net risks

    Rarely do we see balanced reporting on the subject of children's online safety. So it was good to see USATODAY's Janet Kornblum looking at both the real risks and the misconceptions that have developed about how teens are victimized online. Not that dangers don't exist, but "some worry that parents are falling victim to 'predator panic' and overreacting to unlikely dangers, unintentionally turning children off to safety messages altogether," she reports. She also cites the view from the Crimes Against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire. The Center's director, David Finkelhor, told her that - contrary to impressions from news outlets such as NBC Dateline - "overall sex crimes against children are down, with the notable exception of child pornography. Sexual abuse cases were down 51% from 1990 to 2005," and the vast majority of those involve abusers the victims know in real life. For more from Dr. Finkelhor, see "Profile of a teen online victim." [For other articles along these lines, see "Social-networking dangers in perspective" and "Abduction by online predators rare."]

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    Monday, November 12, 2007

    Virtual vs. real: Line blurring

    William Gibson - the one-time science fiction author who now writes about the present and coined "cyberspace" - had something to say about youth in an interview he gave Rolling Stone for the magazine's 40th anniversary issue. He said (and I think he's right) that "one of the things our grandchildren will find quaintest about us is that we distinguish the digital from the real, the virtual from the real. In the future, that will become literally impossible. The distinction between cyberspace and that which isn't cyberspace is going to be unimaginable [as it is now to many young social networkers]. When I wrote 'Neuromancer' in 1984, cyberspace already existed for some people, but they didn't spend all their time there. So cyberspace was there, and we were here. Now cyberspace is here for a lot of us, and there has become any state of relative nonconnectivity. There is where they don't have Wi-Fi." I recently heard a group of women bemoaning the fact that teens actually say they "hang out" with friends in social sites, that they can say they hang out with people who aren't even in the same room. How anti-social, they felt. Maybe if a child, out of fear or anxiety, is social networking is replacing socializing with people in "real life," maybe not if s/he is just making use of another tool for socializing with real-life friends, nearby or distant. But what do you think? Would love it if you'd post your thoughts at - or email me at Thanks!

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