Cyberbullying: The Internet allows bullies to be meaner than ever

November 1, 2010 — by Paul Jung and Anshu Siripurapu

The stereotypical high school bully is a staple of American media. Everyone recognizes the burly teenager shaking down a slight-framed freshman for lunch money. However, these bullies may now be looked upon with a sense of nostalgia as opposed to fear.

These days, a new form of bullying, even more sinister and harmful has taken root: cyber bullying. Its tragic consequences are chronicled in the terrible story of Alexis Pilkington. A 17-year-old soccer star living in the town of West Islip, N.Y., Pilkington committed suicide after being mercilessly tormented by her classmates. Unlike previous cases, the bullying took the form of hurtful messages posted on her Facebook and Formspring accounts. Even more horrifying, the attacks didn’t stop with her death, and derogatory and lewd messages appeared on her Facebook memorial page.

Pilkington’s story represents the shift of bullying away from physical intimidation to Internet hazing. With the growing popularity of social networking sites, it is becoming easier to take personal information about people and turn it into harassment.

According to the Pew Research Group, an think tank based in Washington, D.C, 93 percent of American teens between 12-17 are online, and of those, 32 percent have experienced some form of online harassment. “Adina’s Deck,” an independent documentary on cyber-bullying created by a Stanford student, Debbie Heimowitz, puts the number at nearly 60 percent, based on research at three California middle schools.

These statistics illustrate the ubiquity of the problem of cyberbullying. In addition, these studies also indicate a large percentage of victims of cyberbullying do not inform any authority. It is imperative that the methods for dealing with these harassers also evolve to keep up with the changing times, so students know where to turn.

Using the Internet as a veil for their identities and an outlet for dealing with their own insecurities, people send venomous messages to others through the web that they would not dare to say in person. Formspring, a relative newcomer to the social media market, is a website that allows people to send and receive anonymous questions on their profiles. Another examples of a website that provides the opportunity for anonymity abuse is Chatroulette, a site that allows users to video chat with random strangers. Unfortunately, the anonymity afforded by these websites is often abused, and harassers use it as a shield to protect themselves from the repercussions of making offensive and hurtful comments.

Proponents of Formspring argue that it facilitates the free exchange of ideas, since people feel free to ask their friends questions without pressure or fear of backlash. While this is certainly a noble sentiment, few students utilize Formspring for its intended purpose.

The effects of this kind of bullying on teens are troubling. Anonymous comments are even more potent than open insults because they leave students without a venue to face their tormentors. Students, parents and administrators alike have no way of identifying the culprits behind the bullying and so these students have to suffer the anonymous harassment without relief. Numerous studies have shown the correlation between bullying and lowered self-esteem, depression and suicidal tendencies. With no way of confronting their tormentors to resolve conflict or seek help from authorities in preventing the bullying, students are forced to take Pilkington’s solution of suicide to escape the effects of this problem.

The invention of new websites that allow Internet anonymity have given rise to a new form of bullying that causes much more harm than “traditional” bullying. Unfortunately, most school’s disciplinary measures have failed to keep up with the spread of this new medium of harassment. To promote the well-being of our students, authorities need to take more active measures to apprehend and stop cyber bullies the same way they can to the local lunch money collector.

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