Papers & Essays

Bullied by a Mouse

Japanese
Uniqueness of Digital Bullying

Cyber-bullying is a rapidly growing problem among adolescents. This type of harassment involves the use of some electronic medium. The tormentors often rely upon e-mail, cell phones, pager text messages, instant messaging, websites or online voting booths to make the targeted person(s) experience humiliation, fear, and a sense of helplessness. Digital bullying differs from customary mistreatment of peers in a number of significant ways. First, unlike the situations many adults recall from their youth where a tormentor is physically bigger and more powerful than a victim, cyber-bullies can be physically weaker than the individuals they attempt to intimidate. Electronic bullies hide behind the mask of anonymity that the Internet provides by allowing fictitious screen names. Because digital bullies lack face-to-face contact with their victims, they may not know the amount of suffering imposed and consequently not experience feelings of regret, sympathy or compassion (Schneier, 2003).

Second, the harmful messages intended to undermine the reputation of a victim can be far more damaging because, instead of remaining a private matter or known by just a few persons, text or photos could be communicated to a large audience in a short time. Third, whereas the face-to-face bullies are often easy for victims to identify, cyber-bullies are typically difficult to trace. This means that it is easier for them to avoid responsibility for harming others and therefore these bullies are less fearful of getting caught or being punished as can happen in cases where witnesses observe physical abuse and report mistreatment to authorities.

Fourth, cyberspace represents a new territory for peer abuse, often leaving school administrators with uncertainty about the boundaries of their jurisdiction. Principals and assistant principals are often unable to respond to incidents where bullies have sent hate messages from some source outside of the school, perhaps from their home-based computer or a mobile phone. Fifth, some youngsters are reluctant to tell adults about the abuse they suffer at the hands of cyber-bullies, fearing that the parents may over-react by taking away their computer, Internet access or the cell phone. Teenagers are unwilling to risk having parents choose such extreme forms of protection because, without technology tools, they would become socially isolated and unable to stay in contact with their friends (Cottle, 2001).

A sixth way cyber intimidation appears unique is the common impression that nothing can be done about it. A more accurate view is that cyber harassment is a crime that resembles all other forms of unlawful behavior in being subject to legal prosecution. The School of Law at Dayton University in Ohio established a website that describes cyber stalking and cyber intimidation, identifies sources to contact for assistance in dealing with a tormentor, gives guidelines for reporting mistreatment, and presents articles explaining the legal processes and penalties related to a wide range of cyber crimes including felony acts like distribution of computer virus and pornography.

Examples of Cyber Intimidation

In the past bullies could not follow victims into their homes. The home was recognized as a place of safety, a sanctuary from abusive peers. This is no longer the case in the era of instant messaging. Students commonly indicate that they go online as soon as they return home from school and they could find themselves an object of threats, rumors, and lies without knowing the source of their fear or frustration or how to stop the damage. The painful experience of students from several cultures underscores the complexity of this problem. Shinobu is a first year high school student in Osaka, Japan. When his gym class period was over, Shinobu got dressed in what he believed was the privacy of the school change room. However, a classmate wanting to ridicule Shinobu for being overweight secretly used a cell phone camera to photograph him. Within seconds the picture of the naked boy was sent wirelessly by instant messaging for many students to see. By the time that Shinobu finished dressing and returned to the classroom, he had already become the laughing stock of the school.

Consider sixteen-year-old Denise, a high school junior from Los Angeles, California. Denise had an argument with her boyfriend and broke up with him. The rejected young man was angry and decided that he would get even with Denise, one way or another. The devious method he chose was to post all of Denise's contact numbers including her email, cell phone, and street address on several sex-oriented websites. For months thereafter Denise was hounded by instant messages and car horns from insensitive people who drove by her home to see whether they could catch a glimpse of her. In this case, the identity of the cyber-bully, her former boyfriend, was detected quickly. However, this did not eliminate the sense of helplessness and embarrassment felt by Denise.

Donna attends eighth grade in Montreal, Canada. She and her mother went to Toronto for a week to visit her grandmother recovering from cancer surgery. When Donna returned to school, a cyber-bully circulated a rumor alleging that she had contracted SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) while in Toronto. Donna's girlfriends were frightened, unwilling to be with her or even talk to her on the phone. Without exception, classmates moved away from Donna whenever she came near them. More examples of how individuals are being bullied on the Internet and personal descriptions of the devastating effects can be examined at http://www.cbc.ca/national/news/cyberbullying/

Sometimes there is more than one bully and a single victim. There could be many bullies and multiple parties who experience suffering. This is the situation when students respond to a growing number of trash polling sites accessed online. In a bizarre version of American Idol, the popular television program showcasing unknown singers engaged in national competition, websites have emerged where students vote to identify the most obese persons attending their school, boys who are most likely to be gay, and the girls who have probably had sex with the most boys. The predictable outcome for those enduring such treatment is depression, hopelessness, and withdrawal. A comprehensive website that informs adolescents, their parents and the public about the damage associated with cyber-bullying, the forms it takes, and prevention strategies is found at http://www.cyberbullying.ca

Adolescents are not the only population at school to be bullied by a mouse. Teachers are becoming targets too. When students make disrespectful comments to a teacher or challenge the authority of the school to govern their behavior on campus, they are usually sent to the office where an administrator examines the situation and determines a suitable course of disciplinary action. The limitations of this method to prevent student intimidation of faculty members is illustrated by the experience of David, a high school teacher from Phoenix, Arizona. David offers computer instruction to juniors and seniors and consistently gets high student ratings for instruction. His courses are known for their distinction of preparing people to get a good paying job immediately after graduation. During his interview with us, David recalled the disappointment and shock he felt when told of a website that named him as the invited focus for messages about "What I hate about my teacher, Mr. ...... " The web site contained certain words that the teacher recognized as characteristic of the usual speech for a particular student. According to David: 'I taught this young man how to apply a powerful tool for constructive purposes and he decided to use it against me.'

Solutions for Cyber-Bullying

What kinds of measures can be taken to reduce the incidence of cyber-bullying? State departments of education throughout America have begun to provide middle school and high school administrators training to confront the problems associated with cyber abuse of teachers and students. Other sources must assume responsibility for prevention efforts too. An important initiative is to help more adults recognize that adolescents relate to technology differently than groups older than themselves. Most adults think of computers as practical tools that can be used to find information and send mail without the expense of postage stamps. In contrast, teenagers consider instant messaging, IM, to be an essential aspect of their social lives, a vital connection with peers. Chat is the number one on-line activity among teenagers (Roberts & Foehr, 2004).

These generational differences in perspective account for why adults lack knowledge and are often unable to provide wise counsel about dealing with cyber-bullies. As a result, the solutions they propose are sometimes simplistic and result in less protection than intended. For example, purchasing or setting filters can appear to be an easy solution because these preventive measures will block reception of unwanted messengers. However, bullies are flexible in altering their screen names. Conversely, victims can also assume other identities for themselves that are unknown to the cyber-bully. Responding to the abuser online as if that person can be persuaded to stop harassment in favor of becoming civil may seem a rational way to react. However, many students believe this strategy could motivate the tormentor to apply even more severe methods of intimidation.

Some practical guidelines can be followed to minimize the likelihood of cyber-bullying. The first step for adults is to build close communication ties so adolescents are willing to make known incidents involving electronic harassment. Second, students should be instructed to never provide any personal information such as their password to anyone except a relative. Third, never respond to a cyber-bully and do not believe that everything in print is true. People are not always who they appear to be or who they say they are in chat rooms. A person could claim to be a 14-year-old female but in fact be a 50-year-old male predator seeking a vulnerable adolescent to exploit. Fourth, teenagers should never agree to meet someone they have chatted with online unless their parents go with them and the place of meeting is a public forum. Fifth, when someone is angry, they should avoid sending impulsive messages. Wait until self-control and a sense of calm is restored down so that the message is more sensibly written and excludes hostility. People typically regret sending a 'Flame' (angry) message that could motivate the other party to become a cyber-bully as an act of revenge (Joinson, 2003).

When adolescents tell their teachers or parents of electronic harassment, the cooperating adults should immediately inform the police and the Internet Instant Messaging (IM) or the mobile phone service provider. Recognize that the protection of free speech means that legal difficulties are sometimes associated with forcing any website to shutdown. Accordingly, patience and persistence are needed to deal with the problem of cyber-bullying. Avoid the inclination to just complain about the delay of corporate venders to deal with clients who disobey contract rules they agreed on when beginning the service. Do not give up when certain of the investigative processes associated with fair justice take more time than anticipated. Government agencies are urging more corporate responsibility so Internet service providers (ISPs) can more quickly take down threatening sites, or at a minimum have ISPs as well as Mobile Telecommunication Service providers (companies selling cell phones and pagers) clearly state their policies against abuse and identify resources to report harassment. There is growing pressure to expose companies that do not fulfill their obligations in a reasonable amount of time (Schneier, 2003).

Victims should always keep the messages from cyber-bullies as evidence, both the text itself and source of information detailing address of origin for the email as it may have been forwarded to many people. Do not erase the messages, whether they are read or not. The police and ISP or Telephone Company can use these messages for tracking purposes. Victims may notice certain words that they remember being used by certain people they know. The fact is that cyber-bullies who post anonymous messages are not as anonymous as they may suppose. If law enforcement officials decide there is a threat, they can subpoena the records of all users for a website. From there, users are tracked to their individual computers.

In fiction, Harry Potter possessed magical powers, which he used to silence his bully, the abominable Dudley Dursely. In real life, however, adolescents and their teachers at school do not have such magic at their disposal. Creativity and persistence are needed to discover ways that can better protect them from being bullied by a mouse.


References
Cottle, T. (2001). Mind fields: Adolescent consciousness in a culture of distraction. New York: Peter Lang.
Joinson, A. (2003). Understanding the psychology of Internet behavior. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
Roberts, D. & Foehr, U. (2004). Kids and media in America. New York: Cambridge University Press.
Schneier, B. (2003). Beyond fear: Thinking sensibly about security in an uncertain world. New York: Springer Verlag.
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