Cyber bullying: Students’ emotional, physical health at stake

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Kaleigh Ball turned on her computer and looked at her Facebook page. As she scrolled through the comments on her wall, she began to cry.

Days earlier, she had been attacked by a student who had been harassing her for the past three years.

The bully had punched her in the face and slammed her head into her locker, leaving her with a broken nose and a minor concussion.

All the while, students stood around cheering and laughing.

Now, on her Facebook wall, the bully and other students harassed her about what had happened and posted cruel comments about her and her mom. She couldn’t escape the bullying, not even in her own home.

As children and teenagers communicate more through electronic devices, cyber bullying is becoming a popular form of harassment.

Defining cyber bullying

Kaleigh, an 18-year-old senior at Central Heights High School in Richmond, Kan., said the same girl had bullied her since her freshman year.

“She had just always picked on me,” Kaleigh said.

For a case to be considered bullying, three elements must be present, according to the Olweus Bullying Prevention Program, a program developed by Dan Olweus in 1983 as a guide to help keep children in schools safe from bullying.

— Bullying is aggressive behavior that involves unwanted, negative actions.

— Bullying involves a pattern of behavior repeated over time.

— Bullying involves an imbalance of power or strength.

Cyber bullying involves the same three principles but is done through e-mail and instant messaging on cell phones or on social networking sites such as Facebook.com and MySpace.com.

Elaine Johannes, assistant professor and extension specialist in youth development at K-State, said “back in her day,” the third principle, which involves a power difference, was usually a physical difference. Now that difference can be based on the power of technology.

“Does the person have broadband, high-speed Internet? Well, that’s power. Does the person have unlimited texting? Well that’s more power than someone who has to pay for every T and an E and an X,” she said.

A study conducted in February 2010 by Sameer Hinduja and Justin Patchin, developers of the Cyberbullying Research Center website, found that 20 percent of 12- to 18-year-olds said they have been cyber bullied. However, studies have also shown that many teenagers do not report bullying incidents at all.

According to the guide “Breaking the Code: Understanding and Intervening in Teen Bullying,” by Johannes and Alisha Hardman, a K-State graduate student in family studies, victims are hesitant to tell anyone about being bullied because they are ashamed, afraid of retaliation, do not think anyone can or will help them or afraid their electronic devices will be taken away. Others are hesitant because they believe bullying is a part of growing up.

“[It’s] that typical adage of ‘Oh, I experienced it, you can get through it too,'” Johannes said.

When Kaleigh was first being harassed, she said she didn’t take the threats seriously and decided not to tell anyone about what was going on.

Looking back, she said she wishes she had told her mother when the bullying started.

“You do need to tell people immediately, because I didn’t tell my mom when she [the bully] was fighting with me at first, and she said that she would beat me up and stuff,” Kaleigh said. “But I didn’t believe her, and it happened.”

A growing problem

On his website, Patchin said when he and Hinduja first started researching this problem in 2002, it was rare to see a cyber bullying story in the media, but now they are everywhere.

In recent months, news headlines have jolted the public with stories linking cyber bullying to the suicides of Phoebe Prince, a 15-year-old girl from Massachusetts who hanged herself in January and Alexis Pilkington, a 17-year-old from New York who committed suicide two months later. According to multiple reports, both girls had been harassed in person, through text messages and on social networking sites.

After their deaths, the families of Prince and Pilkington set up memorial pages for them. Within days, bullies were posting offensive comments and harassing the girl’s family members.

On NBC’s “Today Show” that aired on March 31, Jeff Rossen said when Internet bullies prey on the families and friends of deceased teenagers, it is called “trolling” for a reaction.

This ties back to the power element of bullying, the power of anonymity, which is possible on social networking sites where bullies can hide their identities.

According to Johannes’ guide, “cyber bullies typically do not feel regret, sympathy or compassion since they do not have to face their targets.”

Laws and legislation

Back in Kansas, Kaleigh’s mother Kara Ball said school officials handled her daughter’s bullying case poorly and were trying to “push things under the rug.” She didn’t believe it was enough for the superintendent to suspend the bully for three days.

“I was never given a direct answer when I asked them specifically what their bullying policy was and I know it was because they don’t have one in place,” she said. “I had to contact the Kansas State Board of Education for advice.”

Kansas changed its legislation to include cyber bullying laws, which were placed in effect in 2008, requiring school districts to:

— Adopt and implement a plan to address cyber bullying.

— Adopt policies prohibiting bullying on school property, in school vehicles or at school-sponsored activities.

— Adopt and implement a plan to address bullying, which must include provisions for training and education of staff and students.

— Upon request of a school district, the state board shall assist in the development of a grade appropriate curriculum for character development programs.

Kara said she called everyone on the board until she convinced them she was not going to let the situation rest until the bully was expelled.

“There needs to be stricter laws on this bullying and the schools need to be held accountable and made to furnish their policies in detail to the parents, students and to the State Board of Education to make sure that they are following the guidelines and rules as laid out on the Kansas State Board of Education website,” Kara said.

Bullypolice.org, a website that reports on anti-bullying laws, lists 42 states with such laws in place. In the past couple years, several states have started adjusting their current anti-bullying laws to include cyber bullying, give more power to school officials to enforce punishment on bullies and require anti-bullying prevention programs in schools.

“If schools are going to have our children eight-plus hours of the day, then they also need to incorporate ‘socializing etiquette’ in there somewhere. Respect being the main subject,” Kara said.

A plan for action

Patti Agatston, co-author of the book “Cyber Bullying: Bullying in the Digital Age,” published in 2007, has been involved in cyber bullying research since 2005. She said schools need to put plans into effect to make students feel confident in telling an adult when they have been bullied or cyber bullied. She said parents need to have a basic knowledge of the technology their children are communicating with.

“Schools need to incorporate cyber bullying prevention strategies into their bullying prevention efforts,” she said. “Character education needs to include digital citizenship. Parents need to discuss their family values of respect, the golden rule, etc., as it applies to the use of technology.”

Kara suggested parents have their child’s password to Facebook and MySpace — not to invade their privacy, but to make sure they are being safe.

Kaleigh said it was difficult to go back to school after being bullied, but with encouragement from her mom and friends
, she was determined to go back and graduate.

Now Kaleigh joins anti-cyber bullying groups on Facebook and similar sites to share her story and help others who might be going through the same kind of harassment. She said through her experience she has learned who her true friends are and that people like the girl who bullied her aren’t worth her time.

“You should try to ignore them, but you should also tell somebody so they can help you get help,” Kaleigh said. “You can’t let people steal your happiness.”

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