Cyber-bullying as a Form of Discrimination Threatens Young People
I have previously blogged about the use of social media as a tool for cyber-bullying. The Cyberbullying Research Center defines cyber-bullying as "willful and repeated harm inflicted through the use of computers, cell phones, and other electronic devices." Numerous examples exist of such actions and their consequences including:
1. In 2006, Phoebe Prince, a 15-year-old Irish-immigrant high school student, killed herself after receiving nasty online messages and e-mails. Someone told the impressionable young girl who already felt different from her peers to go hang herself. The case prompted a look by Massachusetts at anti-bullying measures that exist in 41 states and the District of Columbia and 23 state statutes against cyber-bullying.
2. In 2009, 13-year-old Ryan Patrick Halligan of Vermont hung himself after he had been bullied online. His death by suicide has been referred to as bullycide or even cyber bullycide. A rumor was started that Ryan was gay. The rumor and taunting continued into the summer of 2003. During the summer, Ryan approached a pretty, popular girl from his school on-line and worked on establishing a relationship with her ostensibly to squash the gay rumor. At the beginning of 8th grade he approached his new girlfriend in person. In front of her friends she told him he was just a loser and that she did not want anything to do with him. She said she was only joking afterwards in an on-line posting. However, she had copied and pasted their private exchanges into ones with her friends. They all had a good laugh at Ryan’s expense.
Cyber-bulling is not a problem unique to the U.S. Back on March 23, a 17-year-old German teenage was brutally beaten after trying to mediate an online conflict. According to the German online publication The Local, the young man suffered serious head trauma after some 20 other teens beat him senseless following an attempt to end the bullying of his 18-year-old girlfriend by other girls on the forum Isharegossip.com.
Before the violent incident, the 17-year-old victim had failed to solve the conflict between his girlfriend and classmates from her former school. The girls had spent several days posting online threats that included physical violence. After the meeting the girls called on their boyfriends, who later accosted the teen victim in a parking lot as he made his way home, according to police. There they accused him of threatening their girlfriends and physically assaulted him with punches and kicks until long after he had collapsed on the ground, the paper said.
The principal of the Carl-Bosch School, where the victim’s girlfriend attended class until recently, said that before the violent incident he had already been in contact with police over Isharegossip.com - only to discover that there was not much he could do to prevent online bullying. The school tells its students not to take such things too seriously, he said. But Berlin Senator Zöllner said that children need more help. “Young people need our support in showing them media competence and how to responsibly use computers, internet and mobile phones.”
Cyber-bullying is the most egregious of crimes against another party because it can be done anonymously. The party being bullied may not even know the bullier. The bullyier may not have any personal relationship with the target of bullying. According to a University of Michigan study, the consequences of bullying are short and long term and cover a wide range of severity. At the beginning of bullying, the self-esteem of the victim is hit very hard. The victim feels guilty and confused at the same time, trying to figure out why this is happening to them. As it continues, social skills begin to fade away even more and depression starts to set in. If no help is found or if the bullying isn’t even noticed, more severe consequences start to surface. Not so much in middle school, but in the beginning of high school, victims may drop out of school all together. In the most severe cases, suicide is considered and eventually carried out. In the long run, many bullying victims fail to thrive in adulthood: they distrust relationships, are fearful, experience isolation and have difficulties standing up for themselves.
Those who breach moral and legal limits under what they assume is online anonymity should know that they are operating with false security. We live in a no consequences society, there has been a breakdown of civil discourse, and violence is endemic in every aspect of American life. Nothing short of an ethics revolution is needed to reverse ugly trends such as cyber-bullying.
We need a change in the culture of society that uses the anonymity of the Internet and social media postings to mock others and strip away their dignity. It often starts with offensive postings and can lead to videotaping the event that goes viral. Those who post videos should take note of the recently posted "Pledge for Online Video Responsibility." Developed for ReelSeo.com, the code of ethics establishes ethical standards for those who use the Internet to post videos.
Likewise, the ethical standards of our schools need to catch up with the technology. Students must be taught an Internet ethic just as they should be taught societal ethics in the classroom. Given the amount of time most teenagers spend online each day, accountability and personal responsibility must become part of each school's response to cyber-bullying. There should be zero tolerance for such activities with suspension and ultimately expulsion the penalties for harassing another student in cyberspace. I ask: “Where is the moral outrage? Do we have to wait until a horrific event such as a mass suicide occurs before passing legislation making cyber-bullying a federal crime as are discrimination and sexual harassment?”
Blog posted by Steven Mintz, aka Ethics Sage, on September 9, 2011