“You dirty slut.” When Mary Ellen was a freshman at an all-girls Catholic school, a classmate would send her that message every night. “She'd go to websites and post my picture, altered, with horns or whatever,” Mary Ellen, now a junior, says. “She would use my screen name in instant message conversations so it'd look like I said all these things that I didn't say. I lost so many friends.” Mary Ellen ended up hiding in the library at lunch and eventually developed ulcers and other stress-related health problems.
Molly Reddington can empathize. Last April the Milton High School sophomore's online journal revealed graphic details of sexual exploits with a random older man she met on a trip to Costa Rica (“that HORNY little bastard”) as well as scathing comments from anonymous readers, like “drunken hoe.” The entries appeared on LiveJournal, a popular blog-hosting site for the high school set; nearly everyone Molly knew at school could have read them. Thing is, Molly didn't write any of it. After that, “Molly was a sad person,” her mother, Catherine, remembers. “She hated school, she didn't want to go. She dragged her way through the rest of the year.”
Text messages. Instant messages. Online journals. E-mails after endless e-mails. Forget schoolyard thugs with bloodied fists and queen bees with scribbled notes—these are today's weapons of choice for any kid with a gripe. The Internet is the bully's new sandbox; the keyboard, the latest torture device.
Almost 80 percent of kids aged 11 to 18 say they have been exposed to gossip online, according to a survey by the educational foundation MindOh. Cyberbullying's forms are vast: cruel text messages spreading rumors and hate, fabricated instant-message conversations sent to spark fights, blogs created to vote on the “biggest whore in school.” This is the world of today's kids—in particular, impressionable 9-to-14-year-olds.
Two years ago Jenna, now 12, was harassed by a former friend via IM. The girl would bombard her with streams of messages, saying, “Everyone hates you, I hate you, you have no friends,” she remembers. After a week, Jenna told her mother. “She called the other girl's parents,” Jenna says. “That made it worse.” Jenna then approached her school's vice principal, who also talked to the bully, only deepening her wrath. This continued for a year, and then, apparently for no reason, just stopped. But Jenna still feels the effects. “School is torture. I still dread going.”
Cyberbullying is an altogether different beast from its old-fashioned duke-it-out predecessor. “Offline, you face immediate consequences. Somebody knows who you are; you have to look them in the eye,” says Parry Aftab, a cyberbully expert and the executive director of WiredSafety.org. Online, the wimpiest kid can be the biggest bully—an anonymous bruiser with an untraceable screen name and without the worry someone's going to sock him in the face. “Kids believe, and they're often right, that they're not accountable for what they say online if they think no one can find them,” she says. Plus, it's easy to do, with much more-prolific damage. “The Internet spreads rumors like brushfire,” Aftab says. Hit “send” and 33 million people on MySpace.com now think Timmy is gay.
When professor of psychology Elizabeth Englander held a conference on cyberbullying last year at Bridgewater State College, it sold out. “People were banging on the door,” Englander says. “It's an enormous issue.”
Englander, director of the Massachusetts Aggression Reduction Center at Bridgewater State, says people are “still trying to wrap their heads around the idea of bullying as being something that's changed from when they were kids.” As things stand, she says, parents often don't “get” cyberbullying, and schools seem helpless to prevent it, even as the magnitude of the problem spirals.
After learning from some of her daughter's friends how widespread cyberbullying was at their school in Westford. Monique Trulson decided it was time to take action. She's starting the state's first chapter of WiredSafety.org's Teenangels, a program that trains kids to speak to fellow students about Internet safety. “Parents around here have no concept,” she says. “With how high-tech Westford is, the lack of knowledge is amazing to me.” According to her daughter's friends, cyberbullying is “an everyday thing.” Kids alter IM conversations, print them out, and distribute them at school; they get together at someone's house with the sole purpose of harassing another kid by IM. One girl notorious for sending hateful messages changes her screen name so often that no one can block her. “A lot of the popular kids bully kids who aren't,” explains one Westford 13-year-old.
Still, there are no state laws or district policies dealing with cyberbullying. The Attorney General's Office is working on a protocol to deal with cyberbullying, but the process is a slow one, and could take up to two school years to implement. Meanwhile, schools are left in the lurch, trying to balance the right to free speech with providing a safe environment for students. “Schools aren't allowed to do anything about cyberbullying unless they have a special provision in their [Internet] use policy,” Aftab says. “Because when they do attempt to punish, unless the incident actually happened in school, they get sued and they lose.”
A few schools have added provisions to their conduct policies. “We deal with cyberbullying from a counseling and a disciplinary angle,” says Betty Golding, adjustment counselor at Walpole's Johnson Middle School. Cyberbullying falls under harassment, Golding says, so offenders can be reprimanded or even suspended. “If students' actions have an effect on the learning process, then we take care of it.” An effect like the one reported by a Walpole student who describes how, after a classmate impersonated her to send out cruel e-mails, “it made me feel like I was nothing [and it] changed my life in that short period of time.”
But Walpole is an exception. Indeed, when Molly Reddington's mother went to the administrators at Milton High the day after she found the fake online journal, they gave the kids a good talking-to—and shut down school access to LiveJournal—but didn't punish anyone.
One of the biggest problems with cyberbullying is determining jurisdiction. “If one child bullies another online, who is responsible for dealing with it?” asks Englander. “If a situation interferes with the child's ability to go to school, but doesn't happen on school property, that makes it a sticky wicket. Schools are often left feeling like, 'We don't know what we're supposed to be doing. There is no jurisdiction called cyberspace. For now, we're on our own.'”
More to the point, the victims are on their own. “Kids say when they look at a message that's been posted about how ugly and fat and stupid they are, it means something. It hurts forever,” Aftab says. “It's the same as it's always been with bullying, but cyberbullying follows you everywhere. It follows you to Grandma's house when you have your cell phone on you. It comes into your house through your computer or your text-messaging device or your Xbox Live. You don't have a safe place to hide anymore.”
The only solution for parents, apart from adopting new protective technologies, “is to educate children relentlessly so that when it happens the kid says, 'Aha, this is what Mom was talking about,'” says Englander. And then cross your fingers that they'll come talk to you.
“The whole mystery of what happened to Ryan unfolded on his computer after his death,” says John Halligan.
Halligan's son, Ryan, was a normal New England eighth grader. Sure, he struggled a bit academically and in the schoolyard—battling some tough teachers and even tougher bullies—and spent an inordinate amount of time locked away in his room, chatting online with his friends. Still, his troubles seemed just normal, eighth-grade stuff.
Then, on October 7, 2003, Ryan Halligan committed suicide.
“I didn't understand what would have driven him to such a horrific act,” his father says. He pored over Ryan's AOL account, reading three months' worth of instant-message exchanges leading up to Ryan's death. One kid had spread a rumor, through IM and chat, that Ryan was gay—leading to a “feeding frenzy” at school, according to a friend of Ryan's. Then there was the popular girl on whom Ryan had a crush. She pretended to like him, too—then passed her IM exchanges with Ryan throughout the school just to humiliate him. “She told him later that she would never want anything to do with such a loser. He told her it was girls like her that made him want to kill himself,” Halligan says.
Turns out, Ryan had been thinking a lot about killing himself. Two weeks before he actually did it, Ryan wrote to another student, “Tonight's the night, I think I'm going to do it. You'll read about it in the paper tomorrow.” The reply: “It's about fucking time!”
John Halligan has no doubt that cyberbullying was a huge factor in Ryan's suicide. He now works with i-Safe America, a nonprofit Internet safety foundation, to raise awareness about cyberbullying. He lobbied for a new antibullying law in his home state of Vermont, which was passed in 2004.
“You think you're doing a great job being a parent in the everyday world, and you're missing the point that you have to be a parent in cyberspace as well,” he says. His family had restrictions when it came to using the computer—no secret passwords, no chatting or IM'ing with strangers—but even though Ryan followed those rules, it didn't matter.
“For kids, the computer has become their whole social network,” Halligan says. “But it's also allowed all the stupid middle school backbiting and rumor-mongering to continue on in another realm”—a place where Ryan was supposed to be safe. “We were cruel to each other, too, 20 years ago, but the technology today lets kids take it to an entirely different, and scary, level.”