Originally, I wanted to simply write about the technical aspects of Cyber-bullying. However, you can't talk about Cyber-bullying without talking about the policies and laws associated with the behavior—that is if you want to take (legal) action to put a stop to it. This article is a sort of primer on what Cyber-Bullying is, what laws and policies are in place in Michigan to stop it, how to spot the behavior and, most important of all, how to stop it.
Cyber-bullying is, in essence, one person or group bullying another person or group. Only in this case, instead of only a physical or verbal confrontation, a Cyber-bully uses technology to further perpetuate it. It's delivered via a medium that is fast, cheap, easy to use, and virtually impossible to avoid: the Internet.
Before you think about the saying that “sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me,” I'm not merely talking about calling people names. I'm talking about someone taking personal information about you, twisting it, distorting it, and turning it against you. I'm talking about words describing some physical inadequacy or some embarrassing secret or story that causes stress. Vicious rumors that turn others against you. Harassment that follows you on-line.
Unlike conventional bullying that typically takes place in a school yard or classroom, or some other confined area that usually stops the moment you go home, Cyber-bullying doesn't depend on common physical areas. Cyber-bullies use social networking, e-mail, instant messaging, and texting to bully a victim. Since we all use one or all of these technologies in our everyday lives, it makes it more difficult to avoid a cyber-bully. You feel helpless, and that's one of the end results of being bullied. Feeling helpless, powerless, weak... you get the picture. It is these feelings that have lead to the tragedies we've heard about in the media.
Laws and School Policies
There is no Federal Law that specifically deals with Cyber-bullying. Instead, each State has their own laws to deal with the issue. Currently, the state of Michigan has no law on the books, though one is currently being considered.
Also, the Student Handbooks for the high schools in Bay Arenac, Oscoda, Tawas and Alcona districts, you won't find a policy for Cyber-bullying.
However, don't think that it means that there are absolutely no laws or school policies that don't cover part or all of this type of behavior if it's happening in a school. Virtually every school in the country have policies against harassment and bullying in their student handbooks which carry punishments.
For instance, if you refer to page 26 of the Tawas High School Student Handbook, you'll find their acceptable use policy prohibits the use of “bulletin boards, chat software/rooms, or social networking sites for personal use.”
Our ISP, Merit Networks, has in their acceptable use policy a fairly broad clause that could be applied to cyber-bullying. “Use should be consistent with guiding ethical statements and accepted community standards. Use of the Services for malicious, fraudulent, or misrepresentative purposes is not acceptable.”
So, if the bullying continues at a school, there are options. Or, if you track down the bully's service provider, you can file a complaint.
What To Look For
Nicole Lyn Pesce of the NY Daily News has provided a list of behaviors to look for to identify a bully or victim of bullying. This has been directly copied from their web site.
SIGNS YOUR CHILD IS A CYBER-BULLYING VICTIM:
- They avoid the computer, cell phone and other devices.
- They appear stressed when receiving e-mail, instant messages or text messages.
- They withdraw from family and friends, or seem reluctant to attend school and other activities.
- They avoid conversations about their computer and other device use.
- They are increasingly sad, angry and/or frustrated, and worry a lot.
- Their grades decline.
- Their eating and/or sleeping habits change.
SIGNS YOUR CHILD MAY BE CYBER-BULLYING OTHERS:
- They have a history of bullying, or have been the target of bullying themselves.
- They avoid conversations about computer and cell phone activities.
- You notice they switch screens or close programs when you, or others, are nearby.
- They use multiple online accounts.
- They excessively use the computer and/or cell phone.
- They get agitated if access to a computer or cell phone is restricted or denied.
What Action Can Be Taken
The New York State Division of Criminal Justice Services gives the following advice on dealing with Cyber-bullying. The following is directly copied from the NYDaily News web site. The text in italics are my own two cents.
- Discourage your child from responding to cyberbullying. Cyberbullies crave attention, so if your child doesn’t react, they might decide to move on. You'll find that some cyber-bullying behaviors have some parallels to cyber-stalking, and the remedial action is the same: don't respond.
- Preserve evidence. This is crucial for indentifying the bully and making a case. Save chat histories. Most Instant Messaging applications have a logging feature that keep a stored record of all chat activity. Better yet, print out any messages or do a screen capture (in Windows, you use the Prt Scr key, which takes a snapshot of the screen, and then paste it into a Word file or image program) and print that out. With e-mails, be sure to view Long Headers before printing them out—this includes important information that can identify what computer or network the e-mail was sent from.
- Try to identify the cyberbully. Even if the cyberbully is anonymous or using a fake name, there may be ways to track the person through their Internet service provider. If you suspect that the cyberbully is involved in criminal activity, ask police to investigate. Using fake and anonymous names doesn't make any online activity untraceable. People leave an electronic trail that can be tracked, and you'd be surprised at how much information can be compiled using public and legal means. Most kids (most people, in fact) won't take the precaution of using Web Proxies, VPNs and Tor networks to cover their tracks.
- Consider contacting providers and filing complaints. Sending inappropriate language may violate the “Terms and Conditions” of e-mail services, Internet service providers, Web sites and cell phone companies. Virtually every service provider has an acceptable use policy, and they tend to have broad definitions of what isn't allowed. Remember that service providers prefer to not police their own networks, but don't think that doesn't mean they won't act if there's a complaint or evidence of criminal activity. Don't be afraid to speak up.
- Block future contact. If the cyber-bullying is coming through e-mail or a cell phone, it may be possible to do this. All popular Instant Messaging software have this feature, and it's simple to use. It's usually accomplished by right-clicking on the offender in the contact list and selecting “Block.” With cellular phones, there may be a blacklist or blocking feature available on the phone itself. You can also screen your incoming calls using Caller ID. Check the phone's owner's manual. Blocking a user is also an option on Facebook and MySpace.
- Contact your school. If the cyber-bullying is occurring through a school district system, school administrators have an obligation to intervene. Even if the cyberbullying is occurring off campus, make school administrators aware of the problem. While schools may not have specific policies, they do have pretty broad definitions of inappropriate behavior, including harassment and bullying. Also, some schools forbid the use of their computer network for certain services, such as Facebook. In most cases, Cellular phones aren't allowed either. The consequences for inappropriate behavior can range from Detention to Expulsion.
- Consider contacting the cyberbully’s parents, if known. They may be very responsive, effectively putting a stop to it. On the other hand, they may become defensive, so proceed cautiously. If you decide to contact a cyberbully’s parents, communicate with them in writing, rather than face to face. Present proof of the cyberbullying (e.g., copies of e-mail messages) and ask them to intervene. Don't make assumptions about others. Parents don't know everything that goes on in their child's life.
- Consider contacting an attorney in cases of serious cyberbullying. Civil law may provide for a remedy, if other efforts fail. An attorney can give you sound legal advice on how to proceed. In the long term, knowing what you should and, especially, what you should not do, can make a huge difference in the outcome.
- Contact the police to pursue criminal remedies if cyber-bullying involves acts such as: threats of violence; extortion; obscene or harassing phone calls or text messages; harassment, stalking, or hate crimes; or child pornography. If the cyber-bullying behavior started out as relatively hurtful and escalated to the point where the bully is making threats, you must not ignore or dismiss it as mere words. Criminals who escalate toward violent behavior, such as stalkers, can be extremely dangerous. To be clear, escalation is a warning sign that says you are in our over your head and need the police. Ignoring it can result in tragedy.
I hope this provides a first step for those who need help. While Cyber-stalking is a problem, there are solutions.
Suicide Prevention News and Comment.
New York State Division of Criminal Justice Services gives advice on dealing with cyberbullying
NY State of Bullying: How to know if your child is being bullied or bullying others.
Michigan – Anti Bullying Legislation
Policies: Merit Acceptable Use Policy
Student Handbook – Alcona
Student Handbook – Arenac Easetern
Student Handbook – Oscoda Area Schools
Student Handbook – Tawas Area Schools