Cyberbullying impacts as many as half of area teens
The revelation gets looks of disbelief when Penelope Doss, the school’s resource officer, talks with students about bullying.
Doss estimates cyberbullying affects about one in 10 students at the school. The estimate may be low, she said, but the impact on victims can be tremendous.
“They can’t get through the school day without checking their phone to see if there’s another text,” she said.
“They’re distracted, they can’t sleep and they’re sad. Their grades will fall … It’s never easy for a kid to hear, ‘You’re ugly,’ or ‘Everybody hates you,’ or ‘You should just go kill yourself.’”
Text messages, along with Facebook, Twitter, online gaming and other websites, are popular forums for social interaction, but each has the potential to become a venue for the type of electronic aggression known as cyberbullying.
Children can be exposed to it long before their parents are aware there is an issue.
“It’s hard to explain to someone what it would feel like to not want to go to school, and to hate yourself, and hate how you look,” Doss said.
She tells of a student who added a person she did not know as a friend on her Facebook account.
“This person turned out to be an adult who lives out of state who runs a website,” she said.
The site’s sole purpose is to disparage others, she said.
“So he took stuff off of her Facebook and changed the captions.
“It was just humiliating.”
A study of about 400 students from middle school to college, most from theLynchburgarea, shows the reach of cyberbullying.
The 2008 survey found between bullies, victims and those who reported being both bully and victim, 34 percent of pre-adolescents reported involvement in cyberbullying, compared to about 53 percent of adolescents and 56 percent of young adults, said Alisha Marciano, assistant professor of psychology at Lynchburg College.
Marciano defined cyberbullying in the study as “receiving repeated offensive messages through email or texting or any electronic device, or if they had ever been impersonated online, or if people had tricked them into sharing secrets and then shared it online.”
Predictably, those who reported more victimization also reported more instances of low self-esteem, social anxiety and depression, she said.
The amount of students who identified themselves as both victim and aggressor surprised Marciano. The reason, she guessed, is the ease with which one can retaliate in the electronic world.
“You can say something back, and so therefore when we asked them later, ‘Have you ever done this to someone?’ they said yes.”
But in the physical world, that doesn’t always work.
“If you are small and somebody’s beating up on you, you’re not able to physically retaliate,” Marciano said.
Sheri Bauman, who oversees the school counseling master’s program at theUniversityofArizona, said the majority of cyberbullying falls into what some define as “drama.” It doesn’t involve outright threats of harm, but lies in the sphere of rumor-spreading, accusations, name-calling, general meanness and even social exclusion.
“It’s possible in a lot of venues, but it appears that text messaging and social media are the primary means that are reported,” she said.
Electronic aggression also can be found on online gaming sites, including children’s educational games.
Children as young as seven, eight or nine can find ways to subvert the games censors to send demeaning messages, often by substituting certain letters of common obscenities. And multiplayer games easily lend themselves to social exclusion.
“They’ll be together chatting and say, ‘Let’s go to the pizza parlor and have a party or whatever, but you can’t go,’” Bauman said.
Studies on the subject have centered on middle school-aged children, as they are commonly “endeavoring to establish social status,” at that age, she said.
NelsonCountyHigh Schoolsenior Whitney DeBilzan has never been cyberbullied, but she knows a little about it.
Her senior project for the Blue Ridge Virtual Governor’s School included revamping lessons from a bullying curriculum to make the lessons more engaging for middle school students.
She calls cyberbullying “a misuse of technology,” adding middle school is a good time to learn what is appropriate.
“I hope that they took away that it is still a form of bullying. They’re just at the age where they’re getting Facebook and texts.”
DeBilzan suggested finding a mediator to talk out differences rather than resorting to bullying of any kind, “because you are making everything worse.”
Most cyberbullying doesn’t cross the line into criminal activity, said Amherst County Sheriff’s Office Inv. Christopher Smith, who works with the Central Virginia Computer Crimes Task Force.
The threats often aren’t credible, he said.
“A lot of times the schools handle the cases, if it hasn’t risen to the level of being a crime,” Smith said.
But once in a while, a comment crosses that threshold.
“A specific threat, ‘I’m going to beat you up tomorrow when I get to school,’ then that’s something that we definitely take a little more aggressively,” he said.
The task force investigates reports and gives parents recommendations on how to handle a situation. He stressed parents need to be involved in their children’s online lives.
“Kids that you would certainly not think would be engaged in any type of negative behavior, a lot of times are the ones that catch us off guard,” he said.
“Are you going to give your kid the car keys and let them loose inNew York City? That’s what the internet is. It’s just a big city, and anything and everything that you could possibly want or dream of is available, and why let your kids loose without any control?”
For teens tempted to post a disparaging comment about someone online, Smith said don’t do it.
“If you’re not going to say it to somebody’s face, or you’re not going to do it in front of them, you shouldn’t do it on the internet.”
Often those posting aggressive or demeaning comments online don’t consider themselves bullies, said Doss, E.C. Glass’s school resource officer.
“Online, it especially has a lot of entertainment value for everyone else who gets to read it,” she said. “They consider it joking or hazing.”
She’s heard excuses along the lines of, “You know, sometimes people just deserve it,” or, “Sometimes you have to tell somebody the truth,” or, “We were just joking and people shouldn’t take it so hard.”
“They come up with a lot of excuses and justifications. They can’t come up with any moral justifications,” she said.
Doss advises bullying victims to stop reading the offensive content.
“Just because someone writes it doesn’t mean you have to read it,” she said. “Block them, don’t be their friend, don’t read it, don’t keep discussing it on your wall.”
It takes away some of the bully’s power when victims refuse to put themselves in that situation and stops reacting to the harassment, Doss said.
“It’s allowing them to hurt you if you read it,” she said.
As a middle school student, Doss said she too was bullied.
“It made me not want to go to school sometimes. It makes you feel that something’s wrong with you, and it can take a long time to get over that feeling.”
A school athlete and daughter of a teacher, Doss said she became skilled at hiding her feelings.
“I felt like a hideous, ugly monster because of what just a few people said.”
Doss now uses her experiences to help build up students’ self-esteem, combating the effects of bullying.
“Trying to get to know them, and be able to tell them ,‘You know what, you’re really smart,’ or ‘I like your artwork,’ kind of build them up a little and let them know that there are adults looking out, that it’s not unnoticed.
“It’s not a secret anymore, and we got your back.”