Formspring.me, launched in November 2009, is a user-to-user question and answer web site. If you sign up, the site presents visitors to your page with the ability to anonymously ask you anything via a web form. You can then post your answer, along with the question, for all to see. A benefit of Formspring is that allows youth to field questions from their peers and others who are thereby (by submitting such questions) demonstrating interest in them. We all want others to demonstrate interest in us. This meets an inherent social need. It also gives adolescents a platform from which they can assert their viewpoints and opinions, as elicited by the questions that are asked of them.
The negatives of Formspring, however, may outweigh this positive. First, there tends to be many questions asked about sex and sexuality – and done so in an disgusting, perverted manner. Second, the site appears to foster the open sharing of hateful, profanity- and obscenity-laced statements – against the page owner, against peers (ostensibly from school), and against others who have asked questions. Some even include clear encouragements for others to kill themselves and thereby make the world a better place. These statements circulate in a whirlwind of middle-school and high-school drama that kids can easily get swept up in – to a point where it consumes their life. Third, I have seen personal information such as full names and even cell phone numbers of youth being posted on Formspring pages – a phenomenon we’ve extensively studied in our MySpace research (summarized here and here). Finally, it may be further contributing to a culture of teens who are tremendously self-involved and always obsessed about what their friends and acquaintances are saying about them (and consequently how they feel about them), and what is being said about their friends and acquaintances. This may be a problem if it leads youth to become what others want them to be, instead of staying true to themselves.
The biggest story related to Formspring has to due with the suicide of 17-year-old Alexis Pilkington from Long Island, New York. It has been said that apart from being harassed at and around school, Alexis was bullied on Facebook and also on Formspring, although my colleagues and I have yet to see actual proof of this. If you can clarify the extent to which Formspring played a role in her death, please let us know, as it would not be far-fetched to believe that comments on the site *partially* contributed to this tragedy. Regardless of whether the site played a role, it has brought increased scrutiny to how adolescents are interacting in that environment. However, it remains unfortunate that it keeps taking stories involving the loss of life to spur many to action in paying attention to the painful peer conflict situations that youth wrestle with on a continual basis.
Several high profile incidents have put cyberbullying at the top of the headlines in recent months. When Sameer and I first started studying this problem over eight years ago, it was rare to see a cyberbullying story in the media, now they are everywhere.
Larry Magid, a technology journalist who contributes to a number of publications, both online and off, commented on cnet yesterday about the potential development of a “cyberbullying panic.” We really appreciate his perspective on issues relating to teens and technology and especially the fact that he always supports his viewpoints and arguments with research.
He is right that the public can sometimes view a particular problem as epidemic in nature simply from one or two high profile incidents (for example, the school shootings of the late 1990s, or more recently the panic over online sexual predators). And many in the media often fan the flames. I basically agree with his thoughts on this and think he is right on in terms of encouraging teens (and adults) to acknowledge that most kids are not engaging in negative or risky or irresponsible behaviors online. Research finds that about 20% of kids have been cyberbullied, or admit to cyberbullying others, at some point in their lifetime (this number varies considerably depending on how one measures cyberbullying). Of course this means that 80% of kids are NOT involved in cyberbullying as an aggressor or target.
Many people ask me if the bullying problem is getting worse with technology. I simply tell them that technology has allowed us to observe the bullying problem more clearly. Kids have always been bullying each other. But technology has brought it to the forefront because we can see exactly what is being done and said. Historically, maybe, much of these bullying experiences would never come to the attention of adults – technology has made the problem more visible, for better *and* worse. This visibility likely contributes to the overall harm caused, but also allows parents, school administers, and others to see it more precisely (and most are shocked, even though they too were once adolescents). I also think that the media attention surrounding these and other high profile incidents over the last year or two (perhaps even the Megan Meier case) has resulted in more students coming forward about their bullying/cyberbullying experiences. Our research over the last five years or so shows that more teens are now telling adults about their experiences with cyberbullying. Now we just need to teach adults how to effectively deal with the problem once they are made aware.
We need to remember that most teens are doing great things online and are largely being responsible (our MySpace research shows this clearly). The high profile examples certainly grab the headlines but represent the exception rather than the rule. Of course, as Larry points out, that doesn’t mean we should ignore the problem. It is hard to see a clear path to prevention and response in the midst of a panic. Good solid research can help us to distill the fact from the fiction, and therefore should be the foundation of any policy and practice. That said, the rare tragedy is often necessary to remind us of why it is so important to keep moving forward with respect to these issues.
It is not often that students are charged in criminal court for their participation in bullying. But that is what happened this week. As has been well-publicized, 15-year-old Phoebe Prince of South Hadley, Massachusetts, committed suicide in January after experiencing extreme levels of bullying from her classmates. After conducting a thorough investigation, District Attorney Elizabeth Scheibel announced that nine teens who were implicated in the bullying have now been charged with various crimes, including: violation of civil rights, criminal harassment, and disturbing a school assembly. Two male students have also been charged with statutory rape. We will closely follow this case through the courts as it represents an extreme response to an extreme incident, and may well serve as precedent for future cases.
No matter how you view this case, it is tragic. A 15-year-old girl took her own life after what appears to be relentless emotional and psychological bullying from her peers. Unfortunately “bullicide,” as it has been termed, is not altogether uncommon. Many parents experience a horrific void for the rest of their lives after losing a child to suicide stemming directly or indirectly from experiences with bullying. Adults who dismiss bullying as simple “kids will be kids” behavior or a “rite of passage” should pay close attention to these worst case scenarios. I have been asked many times by naïve adults over the years: “What’s the big deal, it is only text?” I simply tell them to ask John Halligan or Mark Neblett or Debbie Johnston or now Anne O’Brien Prince, or any one of the other parents who have had children take their own lives as a result of bullying. It can take an unimaginable toll on the loved ones left behind.
While the bullying actions of the teens involved are reprehensible, I am interested in where the adults were during all of this and what their response was. I am especially interested in learning more about what the school (teachers and administrators) knew. There is conflicting information in the media reports about whether administrators knew about the bullying, and the specific actions that were taken. The law is clear that if it can be shown that schools are ‘deliberately indifferent’ to harassment, they could be found liable for damages. Burying one’s head in the proverbial sand and pretending that bullying isn’t occurring is not a legitimate response. Not morally, and not legally.
If parents, teachers, and administrators would have identified and responded to the bullying of Phoebe Prince in a meaningful way, the loss of life may not have occurred. If you are an educator or a parent, don’t think that your students and children are safe just because bullying is not a major, visible problem in your school. Be proactive about educating youth regarding appropriate behaviors and empower them to let you know about any actions or interactions that may compromise the safe and secure environment that should be in place on campus. Teens are reluctant to tell adults about their bullying experiences because they are afraid it will only make the situation. Parents and educators need to present a clear and unified front against all forms of bullying, and let would-be bullies know that disciplinary action will be taken. While I am not convinced that criminal action is the most appropriate course to take in all cases, it certainly sends a strong message to teachers, parents, and students.
There have been many high profile and tragic incidents in the media in recent years which have linked adolescent suicides to experiences with cyberbullying. The connection between suicide and interpersonal aggression is certainly nothing new, as a number of studies have documented the association between bullying and suicide. Sameer and I have a paper coming out in the coming months that explores the relationship between bullying (both traditional and cyber) and suicidal ideation and attempts. We find that those who experience bullying (and those who bully) report higher levels of suicidal ideation and are more likely to have attempted suicide.
Here is the abstract:
OBJECTIVE: Empirical studies and some high-profile anecdotal cases have demonstrated a link between suicidal ideation and experiences with bullying victimization or offending. The current study examines the extent to which a nontraditional form of peer aggression – cyberbullying – is also related to suicidal ideation among adolescents.
METHODS: In 2007, a random sample of 1,963 middle-schoolers from one of the largest school districts in the United States completed a survey of Internet use and experiences.
RESULTS: Youth who experienced traditional bullying or cyberbullying, as either an offender or a victim, had more suicidal thoughts and were more likely to attempt suicide than those who had not experienced such forms of peer aggression. Also, victimization was more strongly related to suicidal thoughts and behaviors than offending.
CONCLUSION: The findings provide further evidence that adolescent peer aggression must be taken seriously both at school and at home, and suggest that a suicide prevention and intervention component is essential within comprehensive bullying response programs implemented in schools.
This research provides additional reasons not to ignore even minor forms of bullying and cyberbullying as they can easily escalate and create long-term and disastrous consequences for those involved. We have a fact sheet that summarizes the findings in this paper which is available here. As soon as the full article has been published, we will link to it on this site.
We’ve been discussing cyberbullying and suicide recently, and even though cases are isolated and rare, the link is worth our attention. First, it reiterates the fact that all forms of adolescent peer aggression must be taken seriously both at school and at home, and that online harassment can have grave real-world implications. It also follows that we should make sure a suicide prevention and intervention component is essential within comprehensive bullying response programs implemented in schools. Without question, the topic is sensitive and its presentation should be age-appropriate, as students in all grade levels must understand the serious consequences associated with peer aggression. While suicide is an extreme response, proper discussion of its stark reality can vividly portray the extent of harm that peer harassment can exact. To be sure, educators must be careful not to plant ideas in the minds of youth related to suicide being a viable option to their interpersonal problems.
As evidenced by the increasing number of self-inflicted deaths among youth, though, it is essential to boldly (but delicately) broach the topic to dissuade this form of harm and to remind youth that help is available. Parents should likewise discuss the link between offline and online peer harassment and suicidal thoughts, and ought to consider utilizing stories in the news to underscore the seriousness of the matter. It may not be a comfortable conversation, but it seems quite necessary given the frequency with which youth are harassed and the manner in which they sometimes suffer.
There is the oft-invoked concern of “copycat” behaviors – that hearing about it will actually promote its growth rather than reduce it – but we are not finding this claim to be valid based on our experience with schools and youth across the nation. It could just be the way Justin and I specifically talk about the issues – we’re just not sure. It is likely worth studying through formal research in the future. Maybe breaking down the specific ways anti-[insert problematic behavior here] messages are delivered can inform an entire population of youth-serving adults as to the best way we can go about it – since they are succeeding in some areas but failing in others.