It’s called “social networking” and it was meant to bring people closer together.
But lately websites like Facebook, MySpace and Formspring have been home to a new form of bullying sometimes linked to teenage suicides and suicide attempts.
After a 16-year-old girl jumped from a South Scranton bridge last month, Scranton police began investigating “inappropriate” messages posted on her Facebook page that have been cited as a contributing factor in her attempted suicide.
“We’ve had cases of harassment through Facebook, but not to the point where someone tried to harm themselves as a result,” said Scranton police Detective Capt. Al Leoncini.
Leoncini said detectives issued a court order to Facebook on April 1 seeking “any and all records relating to” the victim’s Facebook page, but until detectives receive those records the investigation is at a standstill.
“We were told it may be inappropriate material, but we’re not sure until we actually get it,” Leoncini said. “Until we get this, we’re pretty much on standby. â¦ until we get it, there’s not much more we can do.”
The teen’s mother said a small group of teens had tormented and bullied her daughter in and out of school over the past two months, although whether cyberbullying actually occurred remains unknown for now.
Bullies can hide
Cyberbullying is a worldwide problem that mostly occurs on social-networking websites but can also involve cell phones, said Justin Patchin, Ph.D., associate professor of criminal justice at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire and co-director of the Cyberbullying Research Center. Cyberbullying is mostly written, but also can include photographs and videos, he said, and it often occurs among middle school-aged children.
Monica Thomas, founder of Parents Advocating for Safe Schools, said cyberbullying has come about because it allows the person doing the bullying to hide, maybe by using a fake name.
“It’s a way of being able to lash out and do things and be anonymous,” she said.
Former guidance counselor Rick Barone works as a bullying prevention consultant at Lackawanna Trail, Lakeland and Western Wayne school districts and hears about cyberbullying occurring.
“It’s a beautiful way to say ugly things to people without looking at their face,” he said. “And I don’t think they really know the ramifications of how negative it could be.”
The last straw
People really started to become aware of cyberbullying around 2005 to 2007, Patchin said, as instances of teen suicides potentially tied to cyberbullying drew attention across the country. But he said cyberbullying is rarely a direct cause of teen suicides.
“There’s a lot going on in their lives: depression, school problems, family problems,” Patchin said. “Cyberbullying could be the straw that breaks the camel’s back.”
With the students he meets in the region, Barone said none have discussed suicide in relation to bullying. If a child does commit suicide, he said, “there’s a good amount of things that preceded that,” like a lack of self-esteem.
“When a student acts that way, something was going to trigger it,” Barone said. “It happened to be the cyberbullying. That’s where the early intervention comes in to play.”
Bullies might not feel loved at home or have anger issues, he noted, and bullying can be a form of seeking attention. For students who show they need adult supervision, Barone said, “the sooner you get it to them, the sooner they have goals set and expectations set for them, (and) they usually deliver.”
Cyberbullying can be difficult for adults to understand because it does not appear to have any physical harm, or they view bullying as a right of passage, Patchin said. And if people do not acknowledge cyberbullying as a serious problem, he added, it likely will continue to happen.
“Technology is everywhere, and it’s only going to become more prevalent in the lives of adolescents,” Patchin said. “And so the potential is for it to increase or create a bigger problem.”
Thomas thinks there needs to be more communication between parents and their children. That can be tough in an economy in which some parents must work multiple jobs, she said, but they need to take time for conversation.
“At least have one quality day as a family that you spend and you talk,” Thomas said. “It’s getting back to the basics that I think will curb a lot of this.”
And if parents cannot step in, Thomas said, children need to know they have someone, like a teacher or counselor, to whom they can turn for help. Her own son had been bullied and found help in a teacher.
“That teacher pulled him through,” Thomas said.
Patchin said studies show more children are starting to report cyberbullying than they had been, and Thomas has noticed that as well. Children are hearing more about it in the news and popular culture, she said, and feel more comfortable talking about it.
And groups like hers have sprung up to offer help.
“The children just need to know there are places you can turn to,” Thomas said. “There are people out there who can be there for you if you just need to vent.” Barone has found that when students take something posted online and discuss it face to face, the meeting often ends in an apology.
Laws somewhat scarce
There can be legal ramifications for bullies. Bullying laws in about 31 states mention electronic forms of bullying, and six or seven directly refer to cyberbullying, Patchin said. Pennsylvania does not have a bullying law.
Bullies could face criminal charges like harassment or civil penalties when someone they bullied sues them, although Patchin said charges are unlikely in such cases. His group argues that most cases can be dealt with informally by parents, teachers and counselors, and he said they also could bring in law enforcement to convey the seriousness of the situation.
“We don’t necessarily want to make felons out of 14-year-old bullies,” Patchin said. “The vast majority of the behaviors are relatively minor.”
Leoncini said detectives suspect the posts involved in the recent teen suicide attempt may contain images as well as text, but that they were deleted from the site “after word got out that she got hurt.”
And until they know exactly what was posted, detectives will not be able to tell what charges they can pursue.
“If it was threats, it could be terroristic threats. Until we actually look at it we don’t know,” Leoncini said. “We may review it and it may be something that’s not criminal. â¦ It’s really hard to say until we see exactly what comes back.”
Last updated at 4:51 AM on 24th February 2011
Bullied to death: Public schoolgirl Natasha MacBryde, 15, died after being struck by a train on the railway line near Bromsgrove
Fans of the internet never tire of proclaiming its virtues.
Communications, business, travel, entertainment and shopping have all been transformed — opening up new worlds, enriching people’s lives and vastly expanding consumer choice.
Yet the darker side of the internet has all too often been ignored. Just as computers can be a force for good, so they can promote misery and harm. In our brave new cyber world, freedom of communication can degenerate into a licence to abuse.
The truth is that the internet has opened up a window on the cruel and vicious side of human nature. In the virtual sphere, online sadists operate with impunity.
On many websites, particularly those aimed at the young, the boundaries of normal, civilised behaviour have been replaced by the sort of savage anarchy famously portrayed in William Golding’s novel Lord Of The Flies, in which civilised prep school boys turn into savages.
The consequences were highlighted this week by the tragic case of Natasha MacBryde, a 15-year-old schoolgirl who committed suicide after a remorseless campaign of internet bullying.
But that was not all. The malice that had led to her death continued on the internet, causing more anguish to her distraught family.
A Facebook website set up in Natasha’s memory was invaded by a deluge of offensive comments, ranging from sick jokes about the manner of her death to spiteful remarks about her character. This form of cyber bullying is known as ‘trolling’.
A Facebook site set up in Natasha’s memory (right) was invaded by spiteful, offensive comments. Left, a written tribute to the much loved pupil and daughter
One of the worst forms of on-line bullying comes from the so-called ‘trolls’, who post outrageous comments to get a perverted thrill from the reaction they provoke. As Natasha’s father, Andrew, said: ‘I simply cannot understand how these people get any enjoyment or satisfaction from making such disgraceful comments.’
Sadly, Natasha MacBryde’s case is not unique. Persecution through the web, by mobile phone, text or micro-blogging site Twitter is rife among young people.
My own family has direct experience of this appalling phenomenon, which resulted in the death of our beloved son, Matthew, in December 2008, when he was just 17.
Matthew had been a bright, happy child who loved playing on computers. But from the age of ten, he started to be bullied at school, perhaps because he was not as keen on sport as other boys.
The ordeal he had to endure was appalling. He was tormented by a gang of about 20 bullies, who never left him alone. They would taunt him, and steal from him, everything from pens to his bike. When the risibly named ‘happy slappy’ craze was at its height, they used their mobile phones to film their attacks on him, deepening his sense of being an outcast.
Tragic death: Matthew Jones committed suicide in 2008 aged 17 after the bullying became too much for him
Technology worsened the pain, as he was subjected to a endless stream of heartless messages on his phone and his computer.
Bullies love the internet for several reasons. First, they can indulge in cruelty behind the mask of anonymity. Those who hurl abuse in public risk themselves but, in the virtual world, there is no such danger. Even the most malicious threats cannot easily be traced.
Not surprisingly, it all became too much for my son. He grew severely depressed and had to be treated by the mental health services. A mix of counselling and medication led to an improvement, with the result that he passed his GCSEs and went on to sixth-form college.
But the old problems of isolation and bullying soon returned. Matthew sank into despair. So dark was his despondency that he began to log on to a series of websites that promoted suicide. It seems unbelievable such websites are allowed to exist, since they openly encourage vulnerable people to take their own lives.
There may be a proper debate over the issue of assisted suicide for the terminally ill, yet here we have, in the online world, bloggers who goad people into killing themselves.
‘If you’re still here tomorrow, you’re just a chicken,’ is one typical taunt. For Matthew, the result was all too predictable. In December 2008, he gassed himself, having left a final message: ‘I used to be headstrong, happy and optimistic, but after seven years of fighting I have no fight left in me.’
The internet even facilitated his demise, for it was on eBay he bought the gas canister that killed him.
The tragedies we and the MacBryde families have suffered are, I believe, an entirely modern phenomenon. There was nothing like this level of bullying when I was at school.
In a recent survey, half of all 14-year-olds said that they had been bullied, mostly via Twitter or Facebook.
When one anti-bullying charity set up a website in March 2009, 23,000 youngsters visited it in the first three weeks, a graphic indication of the scale of the problem.
Internet unleashed: With scenes of unimaginable violence and sexual depravity just a click away, the internet is desensitising our children
The internet has also encouraged the misguided belief that such viciousness is acceptable, being just another aspect of the kaleidoscope of human existence. In the virtual sphere, all barriers of what’s right and wrong, moral or immoral, have disappeared.
With scenes of unimaginable violence and sexual depravity just a click away, the internet is desensitising us, robbing us of normal human emotions. And the results are terrifying. Children are especially vulnerable to this, with studies showing that youngsters who have been exposed to violent images on the internet are desensitised to real-life violence.
Instead of challenging this barbarous culture, social networking sites are ignoring their responsibilities and choosing instead to profit spectacularly from this murky business.
Service providers, website managers and the Government ought to be responsible for cracking down on the widespread bullying and threats, yet they act as if they are powerless.
Facebook, for instance, could provide tougher monitoring of its users. But that would cost money which it doesn’t want to spend.
Similarly, Government ministers could introduce stronger regulation of websites. After all, the Government had no problem outlawing smoking throughout the nation.
Enforcing a sense of on-line responsibility should not be beyond the wit of our political leaders if the will existed.
If the present anarchic cruelty is allowed to continue, there will be more cases like those of Natasha and our son, Matthew.
Print this article
Email to a friend