Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Cyberbullies ... are they the new 21st century bully?

Recently when we updated our SSS Handbook we added a policy which addresses one of the newest legal issues created by technology, cyberbullying.  The very basic and simple policy reads like this .... 

Cyber-Bullying and Harassment
Threatening, harassing, and/or bullying others using electronic means to include the Internet and/or mobile technology is strictly prohibited. This could result in denial of access to the SSS computer lab/laptops and administrative disciplinary actions.

The issue of cyberbullying has been at the forefront of the news recently.  Teens recently spoke out on CNN about living in a wired world and being unable to escape cyberbullying.  Watch "Teens Speak Out" here  One study reported that cyberbullying causes higher levels of depression than face-to-face bullying and there have been documented cases of teens committing suicide as a result of being cyberbullied.

I am currently taking a course in School Law and our textbook is entitled CyberLaw: Maximizing Safety and Minimizing Risk in Classrooms.  The author Aimee M. Bissonette, J.D. is a lawyer, teacher, and writer who practices law in Minneapolis. 

Bissonette states that "cyberbullying .... relies on electronic devices, the Internet, and the anonymity the Internet provides."  Cyberbullies have a multitude of tools available to them including cell phones, camera phones, e-mail, instant messaging, personal web sites, and social networking sites.

She lists several common forms of cyberbullying that we might not recognize as unlawful or unethical behaviors. As you read the list, think about whether you have ever been a bully or a victim of these actions.

Common forms of Cyberbullying:
Flaming -  is online fights using electronic messages with angry and vulgar language.
Harrassment – is repeatedly sending nasty, mean, and insulting messages.
Denigration – is dissing someone online, sending or posting gossip or rumors about a person to damage his or her reputation or friendships.
Impersonation – is pretending to be someone else and sending or posting material to get that person in trouble or danger or damage that person’s reputation or friendships.
Outing – is sharing someone’s secrets or embarrassing information or images online.
Trickery – is tricking someone into revealing secrets or embarrassing information, then sharing it online.
Exclusion – is intentionally and cruelly excluding someone from an online group.
Cyberstalking – is repeated intense harassment and denigration that includes threats or creates significant fear. 

Cyberbullies typically are females rather than males and rely on verbal, emotional, and psychological attacks.  They thrive on the anonymity technology provides and are likely to act without first thinking through the consequences of their actions.  The tools they use allow them instant access to their victims and a wide audience for their bullying behavior.  Darby Dickerson (2005) in the article Cyberbullies on Campus stated, "Technology allows bulies to be meaner, more frequently, with more allies, before an inestimable audience." 

Bissonette concludes by saying that "Cyberbullies are in our schools, and the tools available to these bullies likely will multiply over time.  Left unchecked, today's student bullies will become tomorrow's bullying neighbors, coworkers, and bosses. But schools are not without recourse.  Schools do not have to tolerate cyberbullying.  They can adopt and enforce policies to clearly signal that bullying is not acceptable and will be punished. Just as important, schools can lead the way in educating technology users about responsible and respectful use of electronic media."

Technology is developing at a rapid pace and the law is struggling to catch up, but one thing is certain ... as cyberbullying grows, so do lawsuits. Several states have now enacted legislation that specificially address the issue of cyberbullying and hold offenders criminally liable for their actions. Employers as well as public agencies will be forced to address this issue or they may find themselves defending their actions (or lack of action) in court.

So how do you deal with a cyberbully if you are a victim?  Here are some tips:

1. Ignore the person.  Go on about your business.  Log-off if the harrassment bothers you.
2. Block or delete the person.
3. Change your password, username, or e-mail address.
4. Contact the website to report anything created without your knowledge or to remove inappropriate language.
5. Talk to someone you trust.
6. Call the police if you are getting physical threats.
7. Never arrange to meet with someone you met online unless it is in a public place.

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