Ethical Hacking
Internet Ethics

Cyber-bullying: Online meanness and Young People

Online Meanness Affects a Young Person's Psyche

I have previously blogged about the dangers of cyber-bullying. This blog is about one aspect of it -- online meanness directed against young people.

Catherine Devine had her first brush with an online bully in seventh grade, before she'd even ventured onto the Internet. Someone set up the screen name "devinegirl" and, posing as Catherine, sent her classmates instant messages full of trashy talk and lies. "They were making things up about me, and I was the most innocent 12-year-old ever," Devine remembers. "I hadn't even kissed anybody yet." As she grew up, Devine, now 22, learned to thrive in the electronic village. But like other young people, she occasionally stumbled into one of its dark alleys.

A new Associated Press-MTV poll of youth in their teens and early 20s finds that most of them — 56 percent — have been the target of some type of online taunting, harassment or bullying, a slight increase over just two years ago. One-third say they've been involved in "sexting." Among those in a relationship, 4 out of 10 say their partners have used computers or cellphones to abuse or control them. Three-fourths of the young people said they consider these darker aspects of the online world, sometimes broadly called "digital abuse," a serious problem.

They are not alone. President Obama brought students, parents and experts together at the White House in March to try to confront "cyber-bullying." The Education Department sponsors an annual conference to help schools deal with it. Teen suicides linked to vicious online bullying have caused increasing worry in communities across the country.

Conduct that rises to the point of bullying is hard to define, but the AP-MTV poll of youth ages 14 to 24 showed plenty of rotten behavior online, and a perception that it's increasing. The share of young people who frequently see people being mean to each other on social networking sites jumped to 55 percent, from 45 percent in 2009. That may be partly because young people are spending more time than ever communicating electronically: 7 in 10 had logged into a social networking site in the previous week, and 8 in 10 had texted a friend.

Devine, who lives on New York's Long Island, experienced her share of online drama in high school and college: A friend passed around highly personal entries from Devine's private electronic journal when she was 15. She left her Facebook account open on a University of Scranton library computer, and a prankster posted that she was pregnant (she wasn't). Most upsetting, when she was 18 Devine succumbed to a boyfriend's pressure to send a revealing photo of herself, and when they broke up he briefly raised the threat of embarrassing her with it. "I didn't realize the power he could have over me from that," Devine said. "I thought he'd just see it once and then delete it, like I had deleted it."

The Internet didn't create the turmoil of the teen years and young adulthood — romantic breakups, bitter fights among best friends, jealous rivalries, teasing and bullying. But it does amplify it. Hurtful words that might have been shouted in the cafeteria, within earshot of a dozen people, now can be blasted to hundreds on Facebook.

"It's worse online, because everybody sees it," said Tiffany Lyons, 24, of Layton, Utah. "And once anything gets online you can't get rid of it." Notably, 75 percent of youth think people do or say things online that they wouldn't do or say face to face.

The most common complaints were people spreading false rumors on Internet pages or by text message, or being downright mean online; more than a fifth of young people said each of those things had happened to them. Twenty percent saw someone take their electronic messages and share them without permission, and 16 percent said someone posted embarrassing pictures or video of them without their permission.

Computers and cellphones increase the reach of old-fashioned bullying. Years ago the bullied party could go home, close the door, and forget about the incident. Today, bullying kids have access around the clock through technology. There's really no escape.

"Sexting," or sending nude or sexual images, is more common among those over 18 than among minors. Fifteen percent of young people had shared a nude photo of themselves in some way or another; that stood at 7 percent among teens and 19 percent among young adults. But almost a fourth of the younger group said they'd been exposed to sexting in some way, including seeing images someone else was showing around. And 37 percent of the young adults had some experience with "sexting" images. And then there is Anthony Weiner who resigned his position on the House of Representatives because he posted on Twitter sexual suggestive photos of himself.

Many young people don't take sexting seriously, despite the potential consequences. Some boys claim that girlfriends and girls who like him have sent sexual messages or pictures — usually photos of bare body parts that avoid showing faces. However, the attempt at anonymity rarely works.

Technology can facilitate dating abuse. Nearly three in 10 young people say their partner has checked up on them electronically multiple times per day or read their text messages without permission. Fourteen percent say they've experienced more abusive behavior from their partners, such as name-calling and mean messages via Internet or cellphone.

Online meanness is a reflection of the declining values in society. Young people feel that they won’t get caught or worse, they don’t care. Rarely are the consequences of one’s action considered before deciding, a prerequisite for ethical conduct to occur. Remember kids, once it’s out there on cyber-space, it’s there forever!

Blog posted by Steven Mintz, aka Ethics Sage, on October 5, 2011