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.”