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June 1, 2007

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Extreme cyberbullying: 2 cases

Sometimes extreme cases are very instructive. Now, when we're only beginning to understand cyberbullying, is one of those times. By "extreme," I mean bullying that has led to teen suicide attempts*. Two such cases involving three New Zealand girls have come to my attention in the past week - one through our BlogSafety forum and the other covered in that country's national news media.

The Sunday News in NZ reported this week that two 15-year-old secondary-school students were tricked by another girl into believing two teenage boys whose online profiles she'd created with scanned photos of magazine models had become their online boyfriends. The scam was discovered by the mother of one of the victims, according to the Sunday News, when she "found a scalpel under her daughter's mattress and an email on the teen's computer from her 'boyfriend,' instructing her how to kill herself." When the mother called the imaginary boyfriend's cellphone number, she found it belonged to the bully's mother. The girl had conducted these online "relationships" with her victims for 10 months, the Sunday News reports, even going so far as to send both victims a number of gifts from the "boyfriends," "including flowers, teddy bears and T-shirts." This peer-to-peer grooming process culminated in an unfulfilled suicide pact between the two victims, the Sunday News.

My awareness of the second case started with this post in the forum: "Four weeks ago, my daughter, in a weak moment, attempted suicide because she was grieving a boy that she had met and communicated with" online and via phone texting. The mother, Karen, later emailed me a copy of her full story, detailed in a letter to New Zealand's Health Ministry (published here, with her permission). The "boy," she wrote, was - as in the Sunday News case - imaginary, the creation of another teenage girl, who enlisted the help of another friend to create the profile of this imaginary surfer sponsored by Rip Curl and named "Ben."

I had read many posts about imposter profiles created about real people; this was the first I'd heard of profiles created about fake people - yet another kind of cyberbullying.

But that's not the worst of the story. Before this experience, Karen wrote, three young people in their small community had been lost to car accidents and suicide, one a friend of the family. Then this past January "Ben" committed suicide while texting her daughter, Karen wrote. "Sophie [who believed he was a real person] was obviously desperate and was furiously trying to call him and text him, telling him not to do it ... to no avail.... On asking Sophie more about this boy, she proceeded to tell me that he had suffered from depression, partly because he had witnessed a previous girlfriend hang herself, and that [another girl] had swallowed razor blades a few months before.... This was Sophie's reality." I'll leave the full story to Karen.

Here are some takeaways from these cyberbullying cases:

  1. Anything can happen on the user-driven Web, including imposter profiles of real people; real profiles, blogs, etc. of imaginary people; faked fights in Web videos; faked deaths on the Web and via IM or text messages; defamation of peers, parents, teachers, celebrities, anyone - anything a user can dream up.

  2. Abuse reports are "he said/she said" communications - if two sides of the story are even available. It's just about impossible for any social site with even hundreds of thousands of users, much less millions, to check a complaint's veracity (such as who the bully actually is) - especially when no law is being broken or physical harm threatened (when police can help), and this kind of bullying's often off school grounds and doesn't involve school personnel or a large number of students (which puts school administrators in a quandary at best). It's also extremely difficult to verify the identity of a bully, a victim, or a parent without corroborating evidence.

  3. Bottom line: If you'll excuse me for riffing a bit, here's my conclusion at this moment in time.... Using a very American metaphor, the social Web is the new "Wild West." Yes, there are laws against defamation, physical threats, and other behavior on the user-driven Web, but they're difficult to enforce in this space even where they do apply. I often tell parents that the social sites are a little like today's phone companies. If an argument starts between two people talking on the phone, would their parents call the phone company to fix the problem? Does deleting a profile or six profiles fix the problem?

    The difference, of course, is that the conversation can be very public and often involves pictures, so it's scarier and potentially has more impact even than a loudspeaker in Times Square (where other noises drown it out and where the public impact would pretty much end when the verbal argument ended). In this "Wild West," people by default or out of ignorance and possibly desperation think of the social sites as the "police" to turn to, when they can't be. Most social-networking sites are showing good corporate responsibility, helping law enforcement when laws are broken and enforcing comprehensive user-protective Terms of Service (no law requires them to, and some social sites are not, but fortunately most kids seem to be using the responsible ones, though no study has been done on this). [In fact, there is no US law that requires social-networking sites to delete a minor's site at the request of a parent, and - because it's so hard to verify legal guardianship online - I'm not sure there should be because of the destructive nature of some parent-child relationships.]

    So, with that as our premise - social Web as Wild West and social sites as phone companies - what are teens and parents left with when arguments and cyberbullying occur? They have their own good sense and ability to resolve relationship problems. There are other tools and resources available to them sometimes, depending on the situation - school administrators, law enforcement, social site Customer Service departments, software, laws, lawyers, counselors, etc. Some of these resources need to improve and new ones added, which will certainly happen over time. But ultimately, where laws aren't being broken, these are relationship challenges that are only really resolved by the people directly involved, just as they always have been.

If anyone wishes to correct or add something to these take-aways, do email me (via We all - teens, parents, educators, advocates, policymakers, researchers - are learning as we go about the social Web, and everyone's input is appreciated.

* Footnote on NZ's high youth-suicide rate: The New Zealand government reported last year that, "for many decades, the suicide rate was consistently highest at ages 65 years and over, but this changed in the late 1980s with a steep increase in youth (15-24 year olds) suicide." In comparing New Zealand to other countries in an OECD study of 13 member-countries' "age-standardised suicide rates" for 2001-2003, it reported that "New Zealand had the third-highest male youth suicide rate, after Finland and Ireland, and the highest female youth suicide rate."

Related links

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Web News Briefs
  1. Overexposed on the social Web

    Photos of and lewd comments about high school track star Allison Stokke, 18, are "plastered across the Internet," the Washington Post reports, and this week newspapers and blogs nationwide have covered this social-Web phenomenon (a Google News search Wednesday turned up about two dozen newspaper stories). This is all unwanted attention for Allison. "After dinner one evening in mid-May, Stokke asked her parents to gather around the computer," according to the Post. "She gave them the Internet tour that she believed now defined her: to the unofficial Allison Stokke fan page [ - since taken down at her request], complete with a rolling slideshow of 12 pictures; to the fan group on MySpace, with about 1,000 members; to the message boards and chat forums where hundreds of anonymous users looked at Stokke's picture and posted sexual fantasies"; to the imposter profile on Facebook (which it immediately deleted on notification)." All the attention has been tough on her and her family. First Allison tried to ignore it, then she told her coach she wanted to figure out how to get it all under control. Within a few weeks, after a Yahoo search of her named turned up 310,000 results, she decided control was not a possibility. The takeaway: It helps to be a nationally ranked pole vaulter (attention all star athletes and persons of accomplishment of any sort), but notoriety good and bad can happen to just about anyone now on the user-driven Web. The solution? To be proactive. We can't control what others post, but we can post positive content about ourselves. "The secret to burying unflattering Web details about yourself is to create a preferred version of the facts on a home page or a blog of your own, then devise a strategy to get high-ranking Web sites to link to you," the New York Times reported two years ago. Sounds like a lot of work, but it could be fun and it's better than what a future athletic recruiter or employer would otherwise find! See also "Kids: Budding online spin doctors" and "Your kids: What people see online."

  2. Facebook's big plans

    As Windows came to be the platform for all PCs, Facebook aims to be social networking's platform, its founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced. What he meant was, allow other businesses like widget makers and marketers to come in and add to users' experience fun little functionalities Facebook can't create all by itself, Fortune magazine reports . Social functionalities, of course. Fortune gave examples: "Imagine that when you shopped online for a digital camera, you could see whether anyone you knew already owned it and ask them what they thought. Imagine that when you searched for a concert ticket you could learn if friends were headed to the same show. Or that you knew which sites - or what news stories - people you trust found useful and which they disliked...." The outcome, the New York Times reports , "is expected to be a proliferation of new tools and activities for Facebook's 24 million active users, who have largely been limited to making online connections, sharing photos and planning events." Here, for balance, is Forbes on how widgets work on MySpace, and a widget maker's POV from Red Herring. Then, for background, here's a 40-something BBC tech correspondent's (fun to read) first-hand experience with Facebook and a general social-networking primer from Independent in Dublin. Meanwhile, social networking's not abating, USATODAY reports, describing three fairly new versions of it.

  3. MySpace user mis-labeled a sex offender

    It was bound to happen simply because technology is imperfect: the first mislabeled "sex offender" blocked by MySpace. This story in ABC News illustrates how hard it is to verify adults' identities, much less minors, and how the best of intentions can have unintended negative consequences. Jessica Davis in Colorado was mistakenly identified as registered sex offender Jessica Davis in Utah by MySpace's Sentinel Tech sex-offender detection technology. So MySpace sent her the Colorado resident "an email that began, 'It has come to MySpace's attention that you are a registered sex offender in one or more jurisdictions.' The note ended with an email address saying Davis had 14 days to appeal." She did. Sentinel Tech apologized.

  4. MySpace & the AGs' 'pr campaign'

    That's what Mark Rasch, former head of the Department of Justice's computer crimes unit called it. In his column "Your space, MySpace, everybody's space" that appeared in The Register and, Rasch writes, "This is not the first time that law enforcement agents have used public perception of a crisis to try to convince private entities to waive privacy policies and pony up information to the government without legal process." He adds: "MySpace didn't 'completely refuse to cooperate,' it just asked the AGs to comply with the law - or more accurately not force MySpace to break the law." The law he's referring to is the Electronic Communications Privacy Act, which limits ISPs and online communications providers' ability to disclose member information. The attorneys general, Rasch writes, "found the privacy laws as applied inconvenient, so they attacked the service provider. Indeed, they insinuated that not only was MySpace [i]permitted[/i] to turn over subscriber or other data to the cops, but that it was legally obligated to do so, just because the cops wanted it. They never explained how the information would prevent a crime, or empower parents, or more importantly why drafting a subpoena was an excessive burden. Indeed, it apparently wasn't, as the AGs eventually got them." Harsh, but thoroughly reported, and I'm linking to it because I feel accurate information - not fear campaigns - is what really empowers parents.

  5. Non-private pasts

    In a commentary in The Observer, a media company chief creative officer talks about how young users of "the confessional media" will never be able to "take it back" the way today's politicians, celebrities, and other grownups can. "The bulk of them use their MySpace and Facebook entries for self-advertisement, social networking and the generally raw process of growing up and working out their identities. With the aid of these sites, they are the first generation ... whose sexual adventures, drug taking, immature opinions and personal photographs are indelibly recorded electronically." He asks if there's been a fundamental shift in attitudes toward privacy (for a US response, see New York magazine, which says "the future belongs to the uninhibited"). The "key elements," he says of protecting privacy online now as much as offline of yore are to "increase media literacy, enable the withdrawal of consent [e.g., to have photos displayed] and ensure that obsolete data can be effectively deleted." I agree that we all need to be thinking and talking with our kids about doing our own spin control - how we're presenting ourselves online and what the implications are - but the part about withdrawing consent (proving that the photos in question, for example, are of oneself so they can be deleted) could prove very unwieldy. Stay tuned - this will all get increasingly interesting.

  6. New phishing ploy

    Yet another indicator that we can never rely on technology alone to protect computers or kids. In this case, it's a sneaky phishing scam to grab Net users' social security and credit card numbers, among other sensitive info. The Register says it's "able to spoof eBay, PayPal and other top Web destinations without triggering antiphishing filters in IE 7 or Norton 360." It got this from a Londoner who "says he's been careful to practice good PC hygiene. He runs Norton 360 and uses the latest IE version, which Microsoft has taken pains to lock down with a variety of safety features, including one that alerts users when they visit many spoofed sites. He's also careful to examine the certificates that accompany financial sites he visits before logging in to them." So this one surprised him. The Register heard from a security expert who "guesses those experiencing this attack have inadvertently installed an html injector. That means the victims' browsers are, in fact, visiting the PayPal website or other intended URL, but that a dll file that attaches itself to IE is managing to read and modify the html while in transit." It helps to be a good speller and grammarian, because typos and bad grammar are frequent giveaways in phishers' emails that otherwise look like Paypal or your bank.

  7. No screentime for a week

    This mom and news correspondent says it right up front: Working in her favor in banning TV and computer use at her house for a week was the fact that her two sons, 8 and 10, are pretty outdoorsy and they aren't yet teenagers (aka social networkers). On Day 2, she writes in the UK's The Times, it's like having toddlers again (no time to one's self, etc.). Day 4 is the high point - when all the rewards are glimpsed. Day 6 sees a relapse (you *may* be surprised whose). At the end of the article, which you can probably tell was fun to read, you'll find "A mother's [slightly tongue-in-cheek] tips to cut screen addiction."

  8. Net-safety perspective

    This Charlotte Observer columnist makes a darn sensible point. He points to a "National Survey of Children's Health" by University of Michigan's Children's Hospital finding that Internet safety was ranked as the No. 7 children's health problem by the US public (smoking, drugs, and obesity top the list). What's interesting, he writes, is that "suicide, depression and cancer didn't make the top 10," even though "suicide was the third leading cause of death for children aged 10 to 19 in 2004 ... cancer is the leading cause of death by disease among children 1 to 14 years old ... and "about half of the estimated 19 million new sexually transmitted disease cases occur in people under 25," he cites research as showing. He concludes with something we and our kids do need to think about where Net safety's concerned: "Kids think the Internet is a great way to meet people. It is a great way to meet people. It's also a horrible way to meet people. You can't see them. You can't look in their eyes, read their body language or ask for ID. There are no witnesses.... We've done a poor job educating our kids about online safety in general. But put it in its place. Computers you can turn off. Cancer, depression and AIDS you cannot." Balanced reporting seems to be a trend. Here's the Contra Costa Times on how the Internet is "safer than it seems."

  9. New field: Social computing

    It's a good thing University of Michigan now has a graduate program in social computing. "After years of worrying about how much time freshmen spend on Facebook, schools are incorporating the study of social networking, online communities and user-contributed content into new curricula on social computing," the Wall Street Journal reports. Programs like this, it adds, tend to draw students with psychology, sociology, and communications degrees as much as from computer science. Another example: a communications professor at the Rochester Institute of Technology receiving a grant last month for "nearly $150,000 from the National Science Foundation to develop a course in social media." This may spell future help with problems like cyberbullying that are about human sociology and communications, not computer science.

  10. Kids: Chief technology officers

    Or maybe that should be families' chief information officers. Because of their Net literacy, young people are increasingly becoming their families' top product researchers and online shoppers, the Christian Science Monitor reports. "Three-quarters of students between the ages of 8 and 14 say they have completed an online transaction, according to a national survey released May 9 by Stars for Kidz." The Monitor adds that nearly 25% of kids shop with their parents' credit cards, 26% use gift cards, and 8% use their own credit card. "Almost half say they help with electronic transactions because their parents are 'clueless' online" and a third help because parents don't have time to shop." But parents turn to their kids for a lot of other tech skills - from learning about sites like Wikipedia and YouTube to editing and printing digital photos to finding directions for parent drivers. The Monitor quotes experts as saying this development is great for children's developing self-esteem and independence, and I think it fosters healthy and necessary parent-child dialogue about constructive use of the Net.

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That does it for this week. Have a great weekend!


Anne Collier, Editor

Net Family News

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