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Silencing Cyberbullies

Digital sticks and stones can't break bones--but they can hurt even more. What educators can do to curb bullying in cyberspace.

By Cindy Long

Ryan Halligan was bullied so relentlessly at school, he finally learned kickboxing to defend himself from the physical assaults. But when the attacks moved online, he had no way to fight back, and no refuge. Day and night, he received e-mails and instant messages from classmates ridiculing him and calling him a loser. When a pretty girl at school pretended to like him online but later revealed she was only joking, the taunting e-mails and instant messages increased, only with even more venom. A few weeks later, in October 2003, Ryan hanged himself in his family's bathroom. He was 13 years old.

Now, Ryan's father travels to schools around the country to share the events that led up to his son's suicide and to warn educators and students about the dangers of cyberbullying. "Please don't ever forget Ryan's story," he says, "or the fragility of adolescence."

Cyberbullying is the use of electronic technology to deliberately harass or intimidate. Unlike the schoolyard bully of yesteryear, the cyberbully can hide behind online anonymity and attack around the clock, invading the privacy of a teen's home. With young people spending most of their free time online or texting their friends, digital bullies not only have ready access to victims, but also an audience—because without witnesses, virtual bullying loses its punch.

According to Pew Research, about one third (32 percent) of all teenagers who use the Internet say they have been targets of some form of cyberbullying that ranged from receiving threatening messages and having their private e-mails or text messages forwarded to having an embarrassing picture posted or rumors about them spread online.

Cyberbullying captured national attention in 2007 when the story broke of 13-year-old Megan Meier, a Missouri girl who killed herself after an Internet hoax in which a fictitious "cute boy" was created by the mother and sister of Megan's classmate. The boy befriended Megan on the social networking site MySpace, but when he suddenly ganged up on her online with her friends, Megan crumbled, reminding everyone how vulnerable teenagers are to social pressure and how the agony of being singled out escalates with the wider forum provided by technology.

Even the slightest perceived misstep can be humiliating for an adolescent struggling with developing self-esteem, says Pennsylvania seventh-grade computer teacher Cathy Smith. But with the widespread use of technology, those missteps can be broadcast to the world.

"Instead of an incident being seen or heard by a few surrounding students, embarrassing moments can be caught on video or camera from a cell phone and be broadcast to the entire school, community, and across the nation," she says. "Imagine yourself as an awkward seventh-grader walking down the hallway when suddenly you're tripped. Maybe it's an accident, maybe not, but someone...gets a picture of you sprawled on the floor with your belongings thrown to the wind....Now with camera phones, that moment can show up on YouTube for the entire world to see…and the victim gets humiliated over and over again every time someone new sees the incident."

As Ryan Halligan's and Megan Meier's parents can attest, cyberbullying incidents can be far more hurtful and humiliating than a video of someone tripping in the hallway. Even at Smith's middle school, some boys created an animation on a Web site where they virtually "beat up" one of their classmates on a regular basis and invited others to join them in the beatings. On another occasion, a "popular girl" placed her digital camera under a bathroom partition to capture an "unpopular" girl in a compromising position. In yet another incident, some of the middle school girls were pictured on a "Hot or Not" list that was e-mailed around to be voted on.

Cyberbullying runs the gamut from minor incidents to major concerns, all of which should be addressed by educators, says Nancy Willard, executive director of the Center for Safe and Responsible Internet Use. "At the major concerns level, the students who are victimized can become very depressed. They're likely unable to study or focus in class and may avoid school, leading to school failure," she says. "Some are committing suicide. Some are engaging in school violence. Teachers must be concerned."

But what can educators do? "Talk about it," says Cathy Smith. "Define it and discuss expectations and consequences. Don't ignore it or take it lightly."

To get kids talking about cyberbullying, Smith meets her students where they live: online. She often shows them a video from the Ad Council where four middle school girls sit down together at school. After saying hello cheerfully, one looks over at her classmate and says matter-of-factly, "Megan, you're a tramp. Ryan Fitch told me you made out. Everyone knows. He says your breath smells like garbage….You're the most desperate girl he knows, besides your mom. How many boyfriends does she have?" After several more cruel comments, the girl finally stops her insults, the screen goes black, and a sentence appears: "If you wouldn't say it in person, why say it online?"

"This ad really got a reaction from the kids," Smith says. "They see how much farther kids will go and how cruel they'll get when they're able to type words in an e-mail or text and not have to say them face to face."

Smith also takes her kids to where they download activity sheets and watch online videos. The "Real Stories" section has the most impact, Smith says, especially a video called You Can't Take it Back, which plays on students' empathy and on an event that occurred at their school. It's narrated by a teenage boy who rated his female classmates on a "Hot or Not" site created by one of his friends. He thought it was funny, but had no idea what he'd written would be sent around to the whole school for all the girls to read. He was dismayed to see some of the girls crying about it the next day, but he was most distressed to find out his younger sister had been added to the site after he'd seen it. "She was crying when I got home and wouldn't even look at me," he says.

"I think the kids can really empathize with the boy," Smith says.

That's because most kids aren't intentionally vicious. Educators acknowledge that there will always be bullies who often have problems that require counseling and parental intervention, but many kids simply get roped in by the bullies.

"A lot of other kids get involved because it seems fun and they don't really understand the effect of what they're doing, until it snowballs," says Caitlin Johnson, editor of, a newsletter designed to help kids stay safer online, sponsored in part by the NEA Health Information Network. "There's a 'pile on' mentality that can quickly escalate so that the victim feels the whole school is against them."

That's why experts agree that addressing the bystander is the best way to curb cyberbullying. By encouraging the bystander to have the courage to intervene rather than take part, most incidents of cyberbullying would fizzle before catching fire online.

"We must focus on peer leadership, or bystander, strategies," says Nancy Willard. "Peers have the ability to support the bully—directly or by their silence—or to challenge the bully by refusing to take part."

She also recommends emphasizing the behavior of the students, regardless of the technology they're using. "We may not understand or engage in cyberspace the way these children can, but they're not developmentally ready to consistently make good decisions about how they use it. As adults, our area of expertise is in human relations, behavior, and effective problem-solving. This is the insight our children and teens need from us."

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Tools for adults to help kids connect safely.

Adina’s Deck
A 30-minute film, website and parent/teachers guide to educate 9-15 year olds about cyberbullying.

“Growing Up Online” from PBS’s Frontline
The episode explores how the Internet is transforming the experience of childhood. Find clips, discussion boards, and a teacher’s guide.

Ad Council
Cyberbullying prevention with national advertising. View clips and campaign material.

Ryan Patrick Halligan
A site dedicated the memory of Ryan Patrick Halligan with resources for parents and others concerned about cyberbullying.