December 2, 2010
A Kid’s Life
By Shannon Scarselletta
On October 17, 2006, I was alternating between creeping on Facebook and reading stories about what else was wrong with Britney Spears. I stumbled across an article announcing that the mother of 13-year-old Megan Meier had found her daughter’s body hanging in her own closet. The suicide had been spurred by mean messages like “The world would be better off without you,” sent by a boy she’d been flirting with on MySpace.
Six weeks later, the horrible truth of the Meier suicide was exposed. Josh, the 16-year-old boy who had befriended and then bullied Megan, was actually a 47-year-old neighborhood mother who had created the alias to find out if Megan was talking about her daughter behind her back.
Though the act was almost unfathomable, it was technically not illegal, so Drew walked away virtually unscathed. I spent the following month of my sophomore year of college checking up on the public outcry for justice. One morning, however, my pattern was interrupted by an unexpected email from Facebook concerning a post on my recently created event.
I was shocked when the link took me to a secret event created under my name that offered its lucky guests a night of bliss with yours truly – and the entire football team was invited. Apparently, my then roommate, teammate and “best friend” had noticed that I had left my Facebook page open during one of those late nights when I was out. She had a bad case of idle hands and a stellar idea.
At the time, I saw no connection between the dirty little Facebook jab and Megan Meier’s suffering. The image of the constantly harassed and bullied victims that was offered by the media – watery-eyed, skinny kids barely clinging to the edges of their social circles – was so far from the laid back varsity athlete I saw in the mirror. I didn’t feel physically threatened, suicidal or depressed, but I did feel slightly robbed. How could I label myself as the same type of “victim” I had seen on TV?
To students at JFK High School in Silver Spring, my experience was much more familiar than Meier’s and other stories of cyberbullying exposed by the media. While it’s extremely important to publicize the most extreme results of cyberbullying, failing to understand and address its more mundane forms has dire consequences for teens.
The majority of victims are social middlemen who do not relate to the media’s portrayal of the “victim”, causing them to think of their experience as “not that bad” as they chalk it up to a mean kid or a bad day. The malicious behavior becomes accepted as a regular part of life, and teens never learn how to deal with it.
Furthermore, by reacting to the more dramatic instances of cyberbullying, legislators can create uninformed methods of prevention that ultimately overlook the real source of the issue. The proposed Megan Meier Cyberbullying Prevention Act is a great example of how some preventative attempts inspired by the most extreme of cyberbullying cases can actually exacerbate the dilemma.
The media plays a large part in exposing and helping put an end to what can become – in Megan Meier’s case – a deadly situation. The statistics and stories presented in the media combine to create a terrifying and unfamiliar image of cyberbullying, studded with tear-stained cheeks and possibly years of therapy.
Reports on cyberbullying rates often conflict drastically; Harris Interactive’s 2007 study announced that 43% of teens reported being cyber bullied during the previous year, while the percentage reported by the Cyberbullying Research Center in 2008 was closer to 17%. Meanwhile, sensational headlines such as Suite101.com’s “CYBERBULLYING CAN KILL”, along with the horror stories that accompany them send the message that cyberbullying is the social version of the swine flu. It’s everywhere. It will make you suffer, and it can kill.
However, after discussing real experiences of this epidemic with students at JFK High School, I learned that sometimes the image of the beast has been so trimmed down that it no longer represents the whole. One of the difficulties facing research, legislation and the media’s portrayal of cyberbullying is that we have not yet settled on a widespread definition of it. Without explicitly defining its boundaries, we are left to individually decide what counts and what does not.
When asked what does count as bullying, students at JFK offered a variety of responses ranging from “saying something mean about someone on Twitter,” to “mass texting someone’s dirt.” Another student added, “What’s cyberbullying to one person might not be cyberbullying to me…because it won’t bother me as much…it depends on how bad the kid feels.”
Stopcyberbullying.org, expert Parry Aftab’s unique website that includes research, definitions and tips on how to prevent and deal with cyberbullying, defines it as:
“When a child, preteen or teen is tormented, harassed, humiliated or otherwise targeted by another child, preteen or teen using the Internet, interactive and digital technologies or mobile phones.”
This can include all sorts of communicative technology and abusive language: posting an embarrassing video on You Tube, spreading rumors on your Facebook status, harassing someone under a false screen name, etc. The definition does not require that the victim undergo a certain level of emotional suffering. So, it doesn’t matter if you struggle socially or are surrounded by friends. If you’re intentionally being targeted, you’re being bullied.
So what about that girl who keeps trying to talk to your boyfriend? It turns out that, while cyberbullying is actually quite prevalent in high school, most instances of it are nowhere near as intense as those covered by the media. Many are actually spurred by real-life, age-old social issues.
One student stated that, “It’s not that big of a deal, but if someone does something to me, I’m going to do something back.” Another student followed up with, “This girl thought I was after her boyfriend, so she sent me some mean messages, but I wasn’t.”
“How did you handle it?” I asked.
“Ignored it. Didn’t bother me too much,” she said.
“And what if she doesn’t stop?” I asked
Simply put: “I’ll beat her ass,” replied the young girl.
She was joking — I assume. But the point was clear. If you disrespect me, I’ll ignore it. If you keep disrespecting me, I’ll fight back — harder.
Most of the cyberbullying stories mentioned were similar and often simple; someone stepped on someone’s toes, or flirted with another guy’s girl, and the victim used the Internet to retaliate. No fake screen names. No truly evil behavior. Just social aggression by a member of the Gen Y generation. Because the targeted teen is not as physically or psychologically damaged as the media’s portrayal of a cyberbully victim, they view their attack as normal. Often, it’s considered an acceptable occurrence requiring a show of toughness to maintain a high reputation. Their options are thus: a) to show they’re not weak by swallowing that sinking feeling and ignoring it, or b) to show they’re strong by fighting back, in person or through the Internet.
Their situation is complex and frustrating and students reason, “If I fight back, I’m a bully. If I don’t say anything, I feel terrible and look weak. What’s left for me to do?” The double-edged sword is in legislation. Megan Meier’s community quickly began petitioning for a law that would punish cyberbullies. Megan Meier’s Cyberbullying Prevention Act – which makes cyberbullying a felony, regardless of the age of the perpetrator – is currently under review. If passed, cyber bullies of all ages would be convicted of a felony and would face up to two years in federal prison.
This would not be the first law in place that criminalizes cyberbullying behavior. Technically, it is possible to prosecute a minor who publicizes his or her own nude photo for distributing child pornography. Many participants in the cyber harassment cycle simply do not see a way out — not just out of online harassment, but also out of the real life cycle of social aggression that necessitates online retaliation. While media and legislators focus on how to prevent the most drastic results of cyberbullying, they ignore the root of the problem and lose the chance to teach students to react responsibly while maintaining their reputation and self-esteem.
The students at JFK agreed that legislation motivated by most drastic examples of cyberbullying misses the root of the problem. “It won’t make it stop,” responded one student. “It will just make us criminals.” The other option is education. Cyberbullying education is slowly spreading, and activists like Parry Aftab and Rosalind Wiseman, the author of Queen Bees and Wannabes (which was turned into the movie Mean Girls), have developed methods to deal with online aggression.
Wiseman’s method, which seems more suitable for high schoolers, encourages students to stop, close the online conversation or message and walk away. Wiseman says, you should explain in a private conversation with the person exactly what made you uncomfortable and why. You should affirm your right and their right to interact with people without being targeted. Finally, you should lock in or lock out your friendship. Explain to the bully how you want your relationship to continue in the future, i.e., “I hope we can still be friends,” or “I think we might need to take time off from each other.” This method is called SEAL.
Aftab suggests another crucial step when it comes to cyberbullying– telling an adult. When this suggestion was mention to the students at JFK, some laughed. “They’ll freak out and call the school,” and “What if it’s about something I don’t want them to know?” were popular responses. It’s true; parents do have a tendency to overreact. So, there are a few options. Start teaching your parents or another adult you trust about cyberbullying before you come to them with a problem. Introduce it to them slowly, so that as something does come up, they will know how to handle it.
As with violence in the news, you must remain critical of the media’s portrayal of cyberbullying. Take the time to recognize that the press loves a dramatic headline, and then think about how cyberbullying actually affects your life. You do have options. Just because you are tough enough to “take” cyberbullying doesn’t mean you have to. You have the right to take care of yourself and bring others in to help you resolve the situation — even law enforcement — if necessary. In the end, it is better to avoid a scenario that can quickly escalate by educating yourself and your friends early. This will allow you to protect your reputation and self-esteem and maintain respect for yourself.