Terror in the Classroom: What Can be Done?, Part 1

Imagine coming home from school and sitting at the computer to get away from the stress of the day. Within a few minutes you're bombarded with messages like "You're ugly…We hate you…Why don't you make us all happy and end your miserable life". Welcome to a world too many teenagers are facing. A world where bullying no longer takes place in the hallways at school or on the way home. Bullying is now more likely to takes place in the murky, often anonymous world of the Internet. About a third (31%) of all students ages 12-14 have been bullied online according to a study by Opinion Research Corporation (2006). This research paper will examine some of the reasons for "cyberbullying," and what may be done about it.

What is Cyberbullying?

Bill Belsey, President of Bullying.org Canada says, "Cyberbullying involves the use of information and communication technologies such as e-mail, cell phone and pager text messages, instant messaging, defamatory personal Web sites, and defamatory online personal polling Web sites, to support deliberate, repeated, and hostile behavior by an individual or group that is intended to harm others". Nancy Willard, author of "An Educators Guide to Cyberbullying and Cyberthreats" breaks down cyberbullying into the following categories:

  • Flaming. Online fights using electronic messages with angry or vulgar language.
  • Harassment. Repeatedly sending nasty, mean, an insulting messages.
  • Denigration. "Dissing" someone online. Sending or posting gossip or rumors about a person to damage his or her reputation or friendships.
  • Impersonation. Pretending to be someone else and sending or posting material to get that person in trouble or damage their reputation.
  • Outing. Sharing someone's secrets or embarrassing information or images online.
  • Trickery. Tricking someone into revealing secrets or embarrassing information and then sharing it online.
  • Exclusion. Intentionally and cruelly excluding someone.
  • Cyberstalking. Repeated, intense harassment and denigration that includes threats or creates significant fear (Willard, 2006).

Many adults, based on their own perceptions of traditional, face-to-face bullying, may not recognize cyberbullying as a real threat. They often think of the bigger, stronger kid physically hurting or threatening the smaller, weaker kid, whereas, with cyberbullying, the bullies come in all sizes, still frightening and harming others, but without the physical contact. Often times, cyberbullies hide behind fictitious usernames and anonymous websites, making them hard to trace. As a result, the bully often feels invincible. Cyberbullies also feel empowered by the instant access to both the victim and the audience that the internet provides. Because the bully does not have face to face contact with the victim during the attacks, he may not be aware of the level of hurt he is inflicting. Therefore, he may be less likely to feel regret or sympathy toward the victim, making the attacks all the more vicious (Schneier, 2003). These factors can lead to a bully who feels more daring and powerful than the traditional bully. While the bully feels invincible, the victim often feels alone and helpless.

Examples of Cyberbullying

Within the last five years many news stories have covered the outbreak of cyberbullying. Earlier this year in Vermont, sophomore Kylie Kinney came forward with her story of harassment. While Kylie was in eighth grade, threats and homophobic remarks were made about her on a Web site titled "Kill Kylie Incorporated". Then, another classmate allegedly created an instant message screen name similar to Kylie's, and began writing sexual innuendos and offers of dates to her field hockey team. Consequently, Kylie quit going to school, was home-schooled for a period, and then transferred to a new high school. In response, Kylie said "I had no escape, everything followed me to school" (Broache, 2006).

In Canada, teenage Ghyslain was bullied when a group of his peers got a hold of a video he created. The video showed Ghyslain reinacting a scene from "Star Wars", flinging and twirling himself around his room. His peers then edited his video, adding special effects and sounds while splicing Ghyslain into movies such as "Chicago", "The Matrix" and "The Terminator". Then in turn, they uploaded it to the internet for everyone to see. Within two weeks, over 15 million had seen the two minute video. Now known as "the Star Wars Kid", Ghyslain dropped out of school and has had to seek psychiatric help (Paulson, 2003).

Sixteen year old Denise, from Los Angeles, experienced cyberstalking and denigration as a form of retaliation from her ex-boyfriend. Shortly after she broke up with her boyfriend, he posted personal information, including her cell phone number, e-mail address and street address on sex-oriented websites. For months, Denise was constantly being harassed by prank calls, instant messages and drive by's. While her ex-boyfriend was quickly apprehended, it did not eliminate the continued hurt and helplessness Denise experienced (Strom and Strom, 2005).

Another example of flaming and harassment by electronic means is the case of Ryan Patrick Halligan. Thirteen year old Ryan was bullied for months by his classmates who started rumors that he was gay. He was constantly receiving harassing instant messages. One exchange even encouraged Ryan to end his life, which he did, a few days later. Ryan's parents never knew of this struggle until a few days after his suicide. "He just went into a deep spiral in eighth grade. He couldn't shake this rumor", said John Halligan, Ryan's father and cyberbullying activist (Ascione, L., 2005).

Cyberbullying seems to be on the rise. A survey conducted in New Hampshire in 2000 found that only 6 percent of teenagers had been cyberbullied (Finkelhor, D., Mitchell, K.J., & Wolak, J. (2000). Six year later, according to a national study by Opinion Research Corporation (2006) nearly a third of the nation's K-12 students have experienced cyberbullying.

Coming next week, Part 2: Effects of Cyberbullying

Ryan E. Winter is an 8th grade Teacher at Excel Charter Academy. Dr. Robert J. Leneway is the education technology unit coordinator at Western Michigan University.