Growing trends in cyberbullying lead to severe consequences for victims

November 17, 2010 — by Emily Williams

With the explosive growth of social networking and texting, teenagers have found a new way to hurt each other. Unlike the traditional playground bully, a cyberbully relies on the power of hurtful words instead of outright violence.

Yet, in some cases, words have proven more harmful than sticks and stones. A study conducted in 2010 by the Cyber Bullying Research Center showed that 20 percent of students 11-18 have reported being cyberbullied in their lifetime. Roughly 20 percent also reported cyberbullying someone else.

According to Sameer Hinduja, Ph.D., and Justin Patchin, Ph.D. of the Cyber Bullying Research Center, most people are unwilling to step in when they see someone being bullied. Witnesses often discredit the influence of cyberbullying and chose to not get involved, but this only contributes to the problem.

“The problem with cyberbullying is that it makes bullying quite easy,” said Dr. Hadas Pade, a psychologist who works with teenagers and children. “You can do it from the comfort of your own home. It also opens the door to possibly a whole new group of individuals who otherwise would not likely bully.”

Many students believe that anonymity is the cause of bullying on websites like Formspring where bullies can hide behind their computer screen.

“People think that because [the Internet is often] anonymous they can say anything they want,” said a junior girl who wished to remain anonymous. “That’s why they do it, because they think they are going to be able to get away with it and no one is ever going to find out it
was them.”

Cyberbullies don’t always see the direct effects that their actions have on the victim, which removes the sense of guilt at doing something that they know is wrong. Cyberbullies’ motivations are not so different than the traditional bully.

“A bully is a person who has their own struggles and bullying provides a way to avoid such issues and feel better,” said Pade. “There’s also peer pressure, which can be very powerful, especially when they feel they can get away with it. We live in a culture where power is of utter importance and whatever way you can get it is often OK. With that mentality, various forms of bullying are here to stay.”

Victims can react in to cyber bullying two distinct ways. One way is internalization, according to Pade.

“They might become depressed, anxious or isolated,” she said. “He or she begin to define themselves by the experience.”

The second way a victim reacts is acting out, or “externalizing behaviors.” The victim may chose to give up on things that were once important to them and make poor decisions in the process. Reactions vary in severity for different people.

“Some individuals are simply more resilient than others and are able to either ignore or overcome bullying more effectively,” said Pade. “However, even for the most resilient child with support in place, bullying can take a toll.”

Over the summer, the junior girl experienced cyber bullying in the form of a malicious rumor on Formspring. The rumor had no basis in truth and was created only to hurt the victim. Because of the anonymity of Formspring, the student doesn’t know for sure who started the rumor or how many people actually knew about it.

“It really hurts because it’s online and everyone can see it,” she said. “Everyone knows.”
She thinks the problem online is that the lack of human contact and anonymity make bullies more willing to be mean to others.

“On the computer there is sort of a wall. They may not be able to say it to you face, but they can say it online because they can just sign off and it will be done,” she said.

According to the student, the worst part of being cyberbullied was when the rumor left the online scene and began affecting her interactions with other people.

“Once it gets out of the online world and into the real world it almost gets worse,” she said. ”Cyberbullying is bad, but once it starts to become part of you real life you can’t just log off.”

Some extreme cases of cyberbullying gone too far are the well-publicized suicides of Tyler Clementi and Phoebe Prince. Prince, a freshman in high school, was tormented by a group of girls at her school in Massachusetts via texting and Facebook before she committed suicide last January. Clementi, a freshman at Rutgers college, committed suicide this fall after his roommate posted a video online of Clementi engaged in a homosexual encounter.

Suicides as a result of cyberbullying are becoming ever more common for teenagers as technology becomes more prevalent in daily life.

“It seems that people become quite bold when they ‘hide’ behind the cover of a computer or phone,” said Pade. “I think technology has allowed some to feel almost invincible and untouchable. The kids push the limits to a new max with cyberbullying.”

The kids who bully may think it is funny or take it as a joke, but there is no telling how the other person will respond.

“You don’t know what else is going on in people’s lives and you don’t know if you are going to be the one that tips them over the edge,” said the junior girl.

Dr. Pade suggests avoiding jokes at the expense of others completely unless you have talked about it face-to-face, and have agreed that it is all in good fun.

“Some are more sensitive then others, and it’s a very risky game to play, I think kids often know when it’s no longer funny but cross that line regardless.”

Pade recommends that people who are experiencing cyberbullying have a trustworthy, supportive adult in their life with whom they can confide. Talking about the problem is the first step. Then, the victim can try to figure out what they should do based on the situation.

According to Pade, parents should listen to their teens without judgment before jumping to conclusions or trying to fix the problem.

“One issue is supporting the child. The other is trying to make it stop. Those are two separate issues that need to be addressed accordingly,” she said.

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