Cyberbullying in the Global Village:

The Worldwide Emergence of High-Tech as a Weapon
for Bullies

By W. Brent Badiuk, who graciously gave permission to have this article, originally published in the University of Winnipeg Education Students' ANTHOLOGY '06, reproduced here.


While bullying has been a problem in schools for generations, the emergence of high technology has changed bullying tactics, perpetrator demographics, and witnesses.  Cell phones, the Internet, and instant messaging may be the new weapons rather than face-to-face physical and verbal intimidation. Numerous studies have been conducted on traditional bullying, but, as yet, not on what are referred to as “cyberbullying.” In this paper I will briefly document some data from research on the repercussions of traditional bullying. Some of the resources used locally and internationally that help solve the bullying program will be cited. I will then explain the phenomenon of cyberbullying and how it differs from traditional bullying. I will also state ways to combat this new and increasing threat.

Bullying in schools has recently become a much discussed topic in ManitobaThe questionable handling of a bullying situation in a Langruth, Manitoba school and the suicide of a teenage bullying victim in Roblin were high profile news items. The 2005 school massacre in neighbouring Red Lake, Minnesota, made headlines here at home, nation-wide, and globally. One of the issues behind the violence in Red Lake was the previous harassment of the perpetrator by his peers (Davey & Wilgoren, 2005, para.30).

Noted expert Dan Olweus has stated that, “bullying poisons the educational environment and affects the learning of every child” (qtd. in Starr, 2003, para. 1). When Olweus began studying school bullying in the early 1970’s, he lamented the fact that, while bullying was an old phenomenon, little research had been done in areas such as prevalence, characteristics of pupils involved, and the contributing factors of schools with this problem (Olweus, 1978).

Thirty years later, one can access research on bullying from various perspectives. Some remarkable statistics have come to light from this research:
* Bullying occurs once every seven minutes
* Episodes are brief, on average, lasting roughly 37 seconds
* Schools are a prime location for bullying
* Most victims are unlikely to report it
* The emotional scars from bullying can last a lifetime
* Primary age children who were labeled as bullies by their peers required more support as adults from government agencies, had more court convictions, more alcoholism, more antisocial personality disorders, and used more mental health services than other children.
* By age 24, 60% of identified bullies have a criminal conviction
* Many adults don’t know how to intervene in bullying situations, therefore bullying is often overlooked
* Only 25% of students report that teachers intervene in bullying situations, while 71% of teachers believe they always intervene. (Lajoie, McLellan, & Seddon, 2001, p.xi).

Years of continuous research at the University of Bergen in Norway led Olweus to develop the Core Program Against Bullying and Antisocial Behavior, which is now being used in significant numbers of schools in North America (www.uib.no, 2002, para. 5) as well as in Norway, England, and Germany (Starr, 2003, para. 2). In Manitoba, a coalition of various provincial government agencies, branches of law enforcement, schools, and professional organizations established Safe Schools Manitoba to address issues regarding community and school safety. Their mandate is to provide resources and assistance to community groups, schools and students to ensure public safety (safeschoolsmanitoba.ca, 2005, paras. 4-5).  As well, the Winnipeg School Division has developed the Pupil Services Department. This department has developed anti-bullying workshops for teachers – one which I have attended – and acts as children’s advocate in helping them manage emotional, social, and cognitive problems, including bullying (wsd1.org, 2003, Introduction).

It is obvious that the subject of bullying now receives greater consideration by school administrators and teachers.  However, with the proliferation of high technology, new and more insidious methods of bullying have emerged. These new methods are known as cyberbullying.

Bill Belsey, who has been described as “one of the foremost experts” (Mitchell, 2004, para. 4) on cyberbullying, clearly defines the behavior:
Cyberbullying involves the use of information and communication technologies such as e-mail, cellular 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. (Belsey, 2005, para. 1)

The University of Calgary released a pioneering Canadian study on cyberbullying in 2005. Students in two middle schools were surveyed; one school was in a middle-class area and the other was in a poorer neighbourhood.  Both schools are involved in a provincial project integrating educational technology. Of the 177 students surveyed, 53% knew of someone being cyberbullied, 25% described themselves as victims of cyberbullying, and 15% admitted to participating in cyberbullying activities. The methods used as reported by the victims were identified as 23% by e-mail only; 36% in chat rooms only; and 41% by more than one source. While 32% of the victims identified the perpetrators as schoolmates, 41% had no knowledge of who was cyberbullying them (Schmidt, 2005).

This phenomenon is world-wide. An appalling and frightening ferocity is shown by the perpetrators. The consequences of some of these actions have been devastating and deadly. A teenage girl in Atlanta described receiving approximately 300 e-mails sent anonymously; all condemned her as a “whore” (cbsnews.com, 2005, para. 5). Three years ago, the BBC reported the results of a survey solicited by a children’s charity. It showed that 16% of the 856 people surveyed aged 11 to 19 had received threatening or bullying text messages (news.bbc.co.uk, 2002, paras. 1-3). In Japan, an obese young male unknowingly had pictures taken of him while changing in a school locker area by a cell phone wielding classmate. These photos were posted on-line and forwarded to other classmates (Giannetti & Sagarese, 2005, para. 3).

Cell phone technology can intensify traditional schoolyard bullying. In 2005, a schoolyard fight in Saskatoon between three teenage girls was recorded on a cell phone. A thirty-second clip of the fight was then posted on the Internet. A Saskatoon policeman interviewed by CTV News explained that using cell phones to entice a large crowd to watch a potential fight made the odds of defusing the situation slim as no one wants to lose face in front of a large audience. He also said that the possibility of adding weapons to the mix is a worrisome and distinct possibility as a face saving measure in such incidents (ctv.ca, 2005, paras. 2-11).

The unending torment via instant messaging led 13-year-old Ryan Halligan of Vermont to commit suicide in October 2003. Bullied at school as well as on-line, Halligan thought suicide a way to get back at those who made his life miserable. When he typed the message, “Tonight’s the night” to his persecutors, one typed back, “It’s about time.”  Ryan Halligan’s father, an IBM manager who assembled his own computers, laid down ground rules and thought he knew the risks of letting his son have his own private, personal computer. Tragically, he was wrong. Only after his son’s death was he able to realize the scope of his son’s troubles by logging on to Ryan’s computer. Ryan had saved three months worth of messages and links that detailed the growing agony that led to his death (Pappas, 2005, paras.1-16).

Cyberbullies are known to create web sites or on-line journals known as “blogs” to abuse their victims visually or verbally. In 2002, the CBC National News reported the plight of a teenage boy living near Burlington, Ontario named David Knight. He was unaware that a defamatory web site about him had been created; it was months before someone told him of its existence. The web site was titled “Welcome to the Page That Makes Fun of Dave Knight” and prominently featured his picture along with accusations that he was a pedophile and used a date rape drug on little boys. The creator of the web site posted pages of savage comments directed towards David and his family, and encouraged others to post more of the same. David’s reputation was slandered, and he ended up finishing his final school year at home (cbc.ca, 2002, paras. 2-10; Giannetti & Sagarese, 2005, para. 1).

Rachel Simmons described blogs in an article in the Washington Post as “cyber reality shows” and “widely read diaries that publicly detail the social dramas and fluctuating emotions of young lives...they spare no language or feelings” (Simmons, 2003, para. 7). She documented the blunt writings of a 12-year-old blogger whose page served the purpose of denouncing everyone she hated, and why. Four different girls, each mentioned by first names, were attacked in print; three were assailed for perceived physical shortcomings, and one was called a “slut wannabe” (Simmons, 2003, para.8).

Programs easily accessed on the Internet are also used to further the activities of cyberbullies. The distinction of the most infamous cyberbullied victim arguably goes to Ghyslain Raza (Snider & Borel, 2004, para. 7). Then only 15 years-old, Raza videotaped himself recreating a fight scene from the movie Star Wars, solely for self amusement (Sparling, 2004, para. 1). Four classmates took the video, digitized it, and published it on the Kazaa file-sharing network. Raza was so distraught over the teasing he received due to the video, he had to finish the semester in a children’s psychiatric ward (wired.com, 2003, para. 6). The newspaper USA Today reported that the video has been downloaded hundreds of thousands of times, and that Raza is now an Internet celebrity known as the Star Wars Kid. His notoriety has spawned web-based fan sites, and his video has been bastardized by Internet techies who have recreated his image for various other on-line movie adventures with characters from The Matrix and The Hulk. His parents eventually sued the parents of the teens who posted the video on the Internet for compensation for their son’s humiliation (usatoday.com, 2003). Days before the trial date, the parties involved reached an out-of court settlement.  While the Razas had filed suit for $341,000, terms of the settlement were not disclosed (Ha, 2006).

Other Internet tools used for bullying are rating and voting sites. One incident involved students in the Manhattan, New York school system that includes some very prestigious private schools. The students established a method of determine the biggest “ho” (whore) in their schools’ community by engaging the services of a web site called Freevote.com. A virtual poll called The Interschool Ho was created and 150 students were listed and ranked. When parents and teachers became aware of this activity, they contacted the web master of Freevote.com by e-mails to close the booth down. That action was futile. Only a phone call from the Brooklyn District Attorney finally persuaded Freevote.com to remove the offensive site (Benfer, 2001, paras. 3-5). Freevote.com no longer exists. When I logged onto the site on April 13, 2005, I found it had been replaced by a site called blogging.com. This site caters more to business and community organizations, as well as families, to host their blogs for a monthly fee. As of May 2006, that re-direct no longer exists. Logging into freevote.com will get a non-response from the server.

It is difficult to get material posted by cyberbullies removed from the Internet. One site based in California called schoolscandals.com was shut down but only after hundreds of sexist and racist posts were made by teens (Cooper, 2004, para. 13). The site is now back on-line, but with succinct rules posted by the administrator that includes no name-calling and a ban on posting private information about other people (schoolscandals.com, 2004, Announcements, #153). These rules seem to negate the reasons for the site’s existence.

Dave Knight attack pageIn the case of David Knight, the police were asked to investigate by Knight’s parents. In an interview with the CBC, a local law enforcement officer would not directly comment about Knight’s case but said, generally, the police were powerless unless threats of criminal intent were made. The parents eventually contacted Yahoo, who hosted the defamatory site, and asked them to remove it. The Knight family believes it took the threat of litigation against Yahoo for them to take down the site. Seven months of phone calls and messages did not work (cbc.ca, 2002, paras. 23-25, 28-29, 51).

One can easily ascertain the anguish and humiliation cyberbullying can cause. That alone does not explain its popularity as a method, however. Stephen Brown (1999) quotes Home and Socherman as defining “a major characteristic of a bully, whatever form it takes, is that they will engage in the bad behavior only so long as they can get away with it with little or no punishment.” Hiding in the expanse of cyberspace makes detectability very difficult. Instead of knowing who the tormentors are as in face-to-face confrontations, the anonymity of the Internet conceals their identity. This anonymity frees the perpetrator to conduct themselves on-line in ways they would not do in real life (media-awareness.ca, 2005, paras. 3-4).

Compared to traditional bullying, cyberbullying offers a more level playing field. Dr. Marilyn Campbell, from the Queensland University of Technology in Australia, noted this difference in a radio interview. She stated that face-to-face bullying usually involved aggression because of a power imbalance; with cyberbullying, status, physical strength, and age did not matter. She remarked that this difference could lead those who would not normally bully in public to do so on-line (abc.net.au, 2004, paras. 12-16). This theory was validated by a 2004 American study done by Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health along with the University of New Hampshire. The study reported 51% of cyberbullies were victims of traditional bullying (Ybarra & Mitchell, 2004, Psychosocial challenges section, para. 1).

It has also been suggested that anonymity allows bullies to be more aggressive and offensive due to the reduced chance of being detected and punished. The victims may feel a magnified sense of dread and humiliation because they do not know who is, or how many are behind these cyber attacks (Zimmerle, 2003, paras. 2-3).

So, how do we fight what we cannot see?  The American based National Parent-Teacher Association suggests parents do the following:
* Become familiar with the new technologies and the many methods children have at their disposal to commit cyberbullying acts.
* Promote positive values. Technology should not alter common decency and kindness.
* Tell children to keep passwords a secret, and change them often. Bullies may use others' identities to send abusive messages.
* Communicate with your child if you think they may be a bullying victim. Typically children will not approach a parent or teacher about this problem out of embarrassment. Reassure the victim that it is not their fault.
* Keep hard copies. Any proof helps when reporting incidents to the authorities or schools. Keep original e-mails in a separate folder.
* Talk to your school to see if cyberbullying is on their agenda as the consequences affect the classroom even if most cyberbullying occurs off school grounds.
* Emphasize the impact of the Internet to your children and tell them to think before you click. A message sent to one person can be forwarded to multitudes, and old messages can come back to haunt you. (Giannetti and Sagarese, 2005. paras. 22-29)

In 2006, a Canadian survey indicated that almost one in five children under the age of 13 years experienced on-line bullying (Weeks, 2006). Bill Belsey, the creator of cyberbullying.ca states that, “the best defense against cyberbullying for now is a watchful, involved parent, guardian, family member or friend” and on his web site he offers up signs to watch for that may indicate someone is being cyberbullied (cyberbullying.ca, 2005, para. 1).

As an educator, personal knowledge of these signs is important. Knowing what resources are available to combat cyberbullying is important as well. In researching this paper, I discovered that cyberbullying.ca is one of many worthwhile sources of information. Its pertinent Canadian content makes it a very valuable resource; a section detailing what victims can do to deal with a cyberbully is filled with excellent information on how to track bullying messages or web sites.

Children are being introduced to high technology at a very early age. During my practicum in the nursery/kindergarten class at Wolseley School in 2004, children four to six years old were in the computer lab thirty minutes a week. Cell phones are becoming an integral part of family communication and many children now have cell phones of their own. It is vital that educators become extremely aware about cyberbullying and vigilant about curbing this behavior.  Our children's welfare and education are too important. To ignore the phenomenon of cyberbullying and its serious repercussions is unconscionable.


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