Research shows that one in four middle- and high-school students are cyberbullied — a trend that society has become more aware of in recent years.
With the increase in awareness, more children and teens are coming forward about being intimidated or harassed online, said Justin Patchin, professor at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claie and co-director of the Cyberbullying Research Center.
High-profile cases in the media also have drawn attention to the problem, he said.
Cyberbullying is formally defined as willful and repeated harm through the use of computers, cellphones and other electronic devices, and is done to harass, threaten and humiliate others, Patchin said.
Examples range from mean text messages or emails, rumors sent by email or posted on social networking sites, to embarrassing pictures, videos, websites or fake profiles, according to StopBullying.gov.
Patchin and co-director Sameer Hinduja have conducted seven formal surveys in the past decade on students experiencing cyberbullying.
Only a quarter of those who have experienced online harassment tell an adult, Patchin said. And although it can be difficult to pinpoint if or when cyberbullying has led to suicides among children or teens, Patchin said those who have been bullied online or in person were significantly more likely to report suicidal thoughts.
Although they do see bullying and cyberbullying linked to suicide in many cases, he said, a suicidal case “could be a wide variety of things going on.”
Clearly, most children who have been cyberbullied don’t commit suicide, he added.
At Morris Community High School, officials are focusing on preventing cyberbullying, rather than just reacting when a case becomes evident.
“I wouldn’t say it is a big issue (at Morris High School). I think we have educated our students enough recently that they realize the seriousness of getting involved with that,” said Assistant Principal Jeff Johnson.
Last school year, School Resource Officer Steve Huettemann held numerous presentations and events on bullying, including having Detective Rich Wistocki of Naperville police come to the school to talk to students. Wistocki deals with Internet crimes on a daily basis, said Huettemann.
Wistocki really opened up the students’ eyes, Huettemann said.
He taught them about keeping their Facebook accounts safe by setting the account to private and discussing what is appropriate to post on social media sites and what is not.
“The most common (issue) we deal with is Facebooking and texting inappropriate things to each other,” Johnson said. “Whether it is names, threatening comments, or going back and forth on Facebook and other people getting in on it (on Facebook).”
What Huettemann is seeing recently is derogatory things on Facebook that don’t necessarily have someone’s name, but friends of the poster know who the post is regarding and then chime in.
“Then the kid feels isolated,” he said. “It can stop them from coming to school and then Mr. Johnson gets involved because it affects attendance.”
Youth who are cyberbullied often report feeling angry, hurt, embarrassed or scared, which can cause children to seek revenge on the bully, avoid friends and activities, or perpetuate cyberbullying.
Some teens feel threatened because they may not know who their tormentor is. Although cyberbullies may think they are anonymous, they can be found, according to the National Crime Prevention Council.
Even if the cyberbullying occurs outside of school, the school administration will get involved because it impacts the students in school, Johnson said. When they are alerted to an issue the administration will call in the involved students to discuss the situation, as well as call their parents.
Parents need to be aware of what their children are doing on Facebook and Twitter, as well as what is being said on their phones.
Johnson suggests not allowing a child to have a Facebook account unless they are friends with their parents, grandparents and/or other relatives so those responsible adults can keep an eye on what they say and do.
Parents also should understand what their children are doing on their cellphones and on the Internet, and should try to remain aware of current technology, as well as demonstrate interest in and a basic understanding of sites such as Facebook or Twitter.
Patchin said parents should recognize how important technology is to teens. If children tell an adult about being the victim of cyberbullying, it should be taken seriously. Addressing and preventing cyberbullying takes a community effort, Patchin said.
At Morris High, there have been no incidents so severe as to result in expulsion or suspension, Johnson said. Most cases have been dealt with via detention or similar discipline. In many incidents, the Facebook harassment has helped in determining how a situation began because once it is posted on Facebook, it can be saved or printed for evidence.
“Once it’s out there (on the Internet), it’s forever. You can’t go in reverse,” Johnson said.
Depending on the incident, cyberbullying can be criminally charged through harassment with an electrical device, Huettemann said. If it is considered a threat, charges can be filed and it could result in fines, community service, probation and jail time.
But in order for it to be stopped, it has to be reported, he continued. Kids should be encouraged to talk to their parents, teachers, school counselors, or the police if they are being cyberbullied.
“The students need to let us know so we can help,” said Huettemann. “A lot of times they don’t want to because they don’t want it to get worse, but if you’re ignoring it or not replying and it hasn’t stopped, you have to take it to the next level.”
Another easy way to prevent yourself from being bullied is not to be friends with people online who are not truly your friends. If you don’t know the person personally that is trying to befriend you online, don’t accept their request, Johnson said. And if it is someone from school that you are not friends with, don’t befriend them just because you go to the same school.
UW-Eau Claire researchers have talked with many teens about cyberbullying and how it affects them, and they’ve realized there really is no escape from cyberbullying, said Patchin.
Because children have constant access to each other through text messaging or messages or chat capabilities on social media sites, bullying can continue at all hours of the day.
“It’s all encompassing: You really get no break,” Patchin said.
And social media sites allow for the tormenting to be very public, he said. If a bully writes something cruel on a victim’s Facebook wall, for example, everyone can see what’s being said, at least from the perspective of the target.
It can be hard to trace the source of anonymously posted messages or images, and deleting inappropriate or harassing messages, texts and pictures also can prove challenging, according to StopBullying.gov.
Positive reactions to cyberbullying include blocking communication with the cyberbully, deleting messages without reading them, talking to a friend about the problem, or reporting it to an Internet service provider or website moderator, according to the National Crime Prevention Council.
One of the critical components to combating cyberbullying is a positive school climate, Patchin said. When it’s clear to students that their teachers care, it creates a positive community and a buffer when bad things happen.
Children feel like adults are more likely to respond in such a climate, he said, and students who reported being part of a positive school climate are less likely to cyberbully others.