Cyberbullying legislation and case law: Implications for school policy and practice
By Sameer Hinduja and Justin W. Patchin
This Fact Sheet provides a summary of important court cases and pending legislation that can help school districts evaluate and improve their current cyberbullying policies.
Hinduja, S. & Patchin, J.W. (2015). Cyberbullying legislation and case law: Implications for school policy and practice. Cyberbullying Research Center. Retrieved [insert date], from http://www.cyberbullying.us/cyberbullying-legal-issues.pdf
What is Cyberbullying?
“What is Cyberbullying?” is one of the most frequent questions we are asked because many know what it is when it happens, but have trouble wrapping succinct descriptive words around it. Formally, we define it as “willful and repeated harm inflicted through the use of computers, cell phones, and other electronic devices” (from Bullying Beyond the Schoolyard: Preventing and Responding to Cyberbullying). We developed this definition because it is simple, concise, and reasonably comprehensive and it captures the most important elements. These elements include the following:
- Willful: The behavior has to be deliberate, not accidental.
- Repeated: Bullying reflects a pattern of behavior, not just one isolated incident.
- Harm: The target must perceive that harm was inflicted.
- Computers, cell phones, and other electronic devices: This, of course, is what differentiates cyberbullying from traditional bullying
When we survey students for our research, we define cyberbullying in a way that we feel is more relevant to their everyday experiences. Specifically, we say that “cyberbullying is when someone repeatedly makes fun of another person online or repeatedly picks on another person through e-mail or text message or when someone posts something online about another person that they don’t like.” We also ask about specific behaviors that might constitute cyberbullying (such as: hurtful comments, threats, rumors, pictures, or videos posted or circulated online). Depending on the circumstances, these experiences could constitute cyberbullying.
It is important to remember that one instance of mistreatment cannot accurately be equated to bullying, as it must involve harmful behavior of a repetitive nature. Even though many people call one instance of harassment on the playground “bullying,” that really isn’t an accurate characterization. Most research makes a clear distinction between bullying and harassment, differentiating the two based on the former’s recurrent quality. That is not to say that harassment or some other form of hurtful behavior done once is not harmful to the victim—it just isn’t bullying. And while this distinction can be perceived as one of simple semantics or a matter for purely academic debate, we feel it is noteworthy. In fact, we believe bullying is actually harassment taken to the next level.
To be sure, part of the reason bullying can be so emotionally or psychologically damaging is because it is repetitive. Victims actually have a relationship with the bully, albeit a dysfunctional one. For example, targets of bullying often dread going to school because of what the bully might do that day. If the incident occurs/occurred one time, there is no such dynamic. We believe that the nature of cyberbullying makes it very likely that repetitive harm will occur. For example, imagine someone posts a particularly embarrassing picture of another person online in such a way that others can see it, link to it, and even leave public comments in reference to it. While the action of uploading the picture is a one-time behavior, others can view it or otherwise refer to it repeatedly, thereby resulting in recurring humiliation and shame to the target. One person might see it, or millions of people might see it.
Though not explicit in our definition, there is usually an imbalance of power in cyberbullying situations. We chose not to include it as a definitional component, because the type of power being exerted in cyberspace is somewhat amorphous and often shifting. While power in traditional bullying might be physical (stature) or social (wit or popularity), online power may simply stem from proficiency with or the knowledge or possession of some content (information, pictures, or video) that can be used to inflict harm. Anyone with any of these characteristics or possessions within a certain online context has power, which can be wielded through some form of cyberbullying. Indeed, anyone who can utilize technology in a way that allows them to mistreat others is in a position of power—at least at that moment—relative to the target of the attack. In addition, it is can be difficult to measure this differential. As researchers we want to focus on the characteristic that are at least somewhat quantifiable. Suffice it to say that if one is being targeted for harassment in a way that doesn’t allow him to capably respond, he lacks power in that dynamic and it is right to say that he is being bullied.
Also, we must mention that we tend to explicitly focus our attention on adolescents when we refer to cyberbullying. Many people use the term bullying to refer to a wide variety of behaviors between individuals of varying ages. We feel, though, that it is more appropriate to reserve the term bullying, and therefore also cyberbullying, for the kinds of behaviors we describe below as they occur between adolescent peers. While these behaviors often occur among adults as well, it is not usually proper to call the incidents bullying. We acknowledge that there is some debate about this distinction, but we want to be clear who and what we are focusing on in our research.
For more information about the nature and extent of cyberbullying, please see this overview: Cyberbullying Fact Sheet: Identification, Prevention, and Response
Bullying Beyond the Schoolyard: Preventing and Responding to Cyberbullying (2nd edition)
By Sameer Hinduja and Justin W. Patchin
The #1 cyberbullying prevention book just got better!
Cyberbullying occurs when three components intersect: teens, technology, and trouble. This perfect storm of elements manifests as harassment, humiliation, and hate that can follow a child everywhere. Drawing on the authors’ own extensive research, this groundbreaking eye-opening resource incorporates the personal voices of youth affected by or involved in cyberbullying, while helping readers understand the causes and consequences of online aggression.
Since 2007, school leaders, teachers, and parents have relied on the bestselling and award-winning first edition of Bullying Beyond the Schoolyard for practical strategies to address cyberbullying. Now in its second edition, this essential guide is completely updated with new research and evolving best practices for prevention and response, including:
– Summaries of recent legal rulings related to teens and technology, and their implications
– Discussion of the responsibilities of school personnel, and how that translates to policy and programming
– Guidance on how educators, parents, students, and law enforcement can work individually and collectively to prevent and respond to cyberbullying
– Useful “breakout boxes” highlighting strategies you can implement
– Practical resources, including an assessment instrument, scenarios, and staff development questions
Written in an accessible and informal tone by leading experts in the field, this must-have book provides the tools to prevent and respond to cyberbullying in your school community.
“This is an excellent resource that clears up much of the confusion and sometimes hysteria generated in the media on cyberbullying. It provides prudent and do-able strategies from crafting policies, to investigating and responding to incidents. Most importantly, it provides the right mindset and philosophy for helping schools prevent the problem in the first place and for empowering all members of the school community to work together. Policymakers, administrators, teachers, parents, and students would all benefit from the knowledge contained in this book.”
– Jim Dillon, Author of No Place for Bullying (Corwin, 2012) and Director of the Center for Leadership and Bullying Prevention, Measurement Incorporated
“In a society that is grappling with the ramifications of the rapid pace of technological advancement, cyberbullying has emerged as a serious issue in education. This book provides real-life scenarios, timely data, and best practices to help school leaders protect the children and adolescents in their schools. All educators will find these resources useful in detecting and preventing cyberbullying and ensuring the safety of students.”
-Gail Connelly, Executive Director,
National Association of Elementary School Principals
Hinduja, S. & Patchin, J. W. (2015). Bullying Beyond the Schoolyard: Preventing and Responding to Cyberbullying (2nd edition). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.
Cyberbullying Warning Signs
By Sameer Hinduja and Justin W. Patchin
To be sure, it is often difficult to determine whether behavioral or attitudinal changes in youth are signals of distress or simply the usual “adolescent angst” commonly associated with this difficult transitional period in their lives. Nevertheless, it is important for educators, parents, and other adults to learn to read the behavior of their students and children so that real problems can be detected, diagnosed, and promptly handled. A number of red flags may suggest that a child is experiencing some type of distressing event while online. Identifying these indicators may help to minimize the negative emotional and psychological effects of Internet-based harm.
From: Hinduja, S. & Patchin, J. W. (2015). Bullying Beyond the Schoolyard: Preventing and Responding to Cyberbullying (2nd Ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications (978-1483349930).
Cyberbullying Fact Sheet: Identification, Prevention, and Response
By Sameer Hinduja and Justin W. Patchin
This document is a nine-page summary – filled with as much useful information as possible – to equip educators and parents to spot cyberbullying, respond to it appropriately and meaningfully, and to prevent its future occurrence among the children and teenagers they care for. If you only have time to read one fact sheet from the Cyberbullying Research Center to get up-to-speed about the problem and what you can do, read this one.
Hinduja, S. & Patchin, J. W. (2014). Cyberbullying fact sheet: Identification, Prevention, and Response. Cyberbullying Research Center. Retrieved [insert date], from http://www.cyberbullying.us/Cyberbullying-Identification-Prevention-Response.pdf
Cyberbullying Research: 2013 Update
It’s been nearly three years since I posted a summary of the current state of cyberbullying research on this blog. That post was inspired by my concern that no researchers were included on a panel that testified to the Committee on Education and Labor’s Subcommittee on Healthy Families and Communities on the topic of how teens were using and misusing technology. I was troubled then, and remain concerned that quality research about cyberbullying has not been making it into mainstream discussions in the media, even though research in this area has flourished. I want to take a moment to update readers on what we know about cyberbullying based on our research – and that of others who have been exploring this problem.
Over the last decade, Sameer and I have surveyed nearly 15,000 middle and high school students in nine different studies from over 80 different schools throughout the United States. The first two studies were online exploratory samples used to obtain a general understanding of the problem, so the numbers obtained are higher than average and not representative because they only include online teens who volunteered to participate. Our seven most recent studies, however, have all been random samples of known populations in schools so we can be fairly confident in the reliability and validity of the data obtained (click here for more information about the methodology). Overall, about 24% of the students we have surveyed over the last seven studies have told us that they have been cyberbullied at some point in their lifetimes. About 8% said they were cyberbullied in the 30 days preceding the survey. Similarly, about 16% of those who we surveyed admitted that they had cyberbullied others at some point in their lifetimes (about 6% in the most recent 30 days).
Other Published Research
This past summer, Sameer and I (along with one of my undergraduate students) reviewed all of the published research we could find that included prevalence rates for cyberbullying. This work built on our earlier effort to quantitatively summarize published cyberbullying articles which we wrote about in our book Cyberbullying Prevention and Response: Expert Perspectives (see especially chapter 2). In total, we have now reviewed 73 articles published in peer-reviewed academic journals. Fifty-one of those included cyberbullying victimization rates and 42 included cyberbullying offending rates. As you can see from the charts below (click to enlarge), rates across all of the studies ranged widely, from 2.3% to 72% for victimization and from 1.2% to 44.1% for offending. The average across all of these studies was remarkably similar to the rates that we found in our work (about 21% of teens have been cyberbullied and about 15% admitted to cyberbullying others at some point in their lifetimes). Taken as a whole, it seems safe to conclude that about one out of every four teens has experienced cyberbullying, and about one out of every six teens has done it to others.
A couple of other broad generalizations can be made about cyberbullying, based on recent research:
– Adolescent girls are just as likely, if not more likely than boys to experience cyberbullying (as a victim and offender) (Floros et al., 2013; Kowalski et al., 2008; Hinduja & Patchin, 2009; Schneider et al., 2012)
– Cyberbullying is related to low self-esteem, suicidal ideation, anger, frustration, and a variety of other emotional and psychological problems (Brighi et al., 2012; Hinduja & Patchin, 2010; Kowalski & Limber, 2013; Patchin & Hinduja, 2010; Wang, Nansel, & Iannotti, 2011)
– Cyberbullying is related to other issues in the ‘real world’ including school problems, anti-social behavior, substance use, and delinquency (Hinduja & Patchin, 2007; Hinduja & Patchin, 2008; Kowalski & Limber, 2013)
– Traditional bullying is still more common than cyberbullying (Lenhart, 2007; Smith et al., 2008; Wang, Nansel, & Iannotti, 2011)
– Traditional bullying and cyberbullying are closely related: those who are bullied at school are bullied online and those who bully at school bully online (Hinduja & Patchin, 2009; Kowalski & Limber, 2013; Ybarra, Diener-West, & Leaf, 2007).
There are only two studies that we are aware of that have explored cyberbullying experiences over time. The first analysis was conducted by our friends at the Crimes Against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire. Examining the three waves of the Youth Internet Safety Survey (2000, 2005, 2010), they find a slight increase in cyberbullying behaviors over that time period (from 6% to 9% to 11%). The second data source is the School Crime Supplement of the National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS). In 2011, 9% of students said they were cyberbullied compared to 6.2% in 2009. Since the NCVS data are weighted to represent the entire population of 12-18 year-olds enrolled in grades 6 through 12, we can estimate that about 2.2 million students experienced cyberbullying in 2011, up from about 1.5 million in 2009. Overall, even though we don’t have a lot of good research to go on, it seems reasonable to presume a slight increase in cyberbullying behaviors over the last few years.
I should acknowledge, however, that a recent poll from MTV and the AP released last month seemed to suggest a decrease in cyberbullying behaviors. I haven’t been able to examine the full methodology of that poll so it is difficult to know exactly what is going on, but I am suspicious since the numbers reported overall (49% cyberbullied in 2013 compared to 56% in 2011) are significantly higher than those in the peer-reviewed published literature that I summarized above.
Snapshot of Some Recent Data
We also just collected data (October, 2013) from about 400 students at one middle school (ages ranged from 11-14) in the Midwest. We haven’t had a chance to fully examine the results, but here are some quick stats:
– 97.5% have been online in the previous 30 days
– 63% have a cell phone
– 45% are on Facebook
– 42% are on Instagram
– 11.5% have been the target of cyberbullying in the previous 30 days (boys: 6.8%; girls: 16.0%)
– 3.9% have cyberbullied others in the previous 30 days (boys: 0.6%; girls: 6.9%)
Where Do We Go From Here
We have come a long way in a relatively short amount of time, but more research is still necessary. Public attention to the problem of cyberbullying is at an all-time high. As such, good research is necessary to contribute evidence-based insight into the nature of this problem and its possible solutions. Cyberbullying scholarship must continue to advance by improving methodological standards, including the use of validated measures, representative samples, and, where possible, longitudinal data. Supplementing quantitative findings with those from thoughtful and comprehensive qualitative inquiries will also help to better understand the precise nature of some of these relationships. With these considerations in mind, research will be better able to inform the public conversation about cyberbullying in a way that equips educators, parents, policy makers, and others with the information they need to make a positive difference in the lives of adolescents, online and offline.
Brighi, A., Melotti, G., Guarini, A., Genta, M. L., Ortega, R., Mora-Merchán, J., Smith, P. K. and Thompson, F. (2012). Self-Esteem and Loneliness in Relation to Cyberbullying in Three European Countries, in Cyberbullying in the Global Playground: Research from International Perspectives (eds Q. Li, D. Cross and P. K. Smith), Wiley-Blackwell, Oxford, UK.
Floros, G.D., Simos, K. E., Fisoun, V., Dafouli, E., and Geroukalis, D. (2013). Adolescent online cyberbullying in Greece: The impact of parental online security practices, bonding, and online impulsiveness. Journal of School Health, 83(6), 445-453.
Hinduja, S. & Patchin, J. W. (2007). Offline consequences of online victimization: School violence and delinquency. Journal of School Violence, 6(3), 89-112.
Hinduja, S. & Patchin, J. W. (2008). Cyberbullying: An exploratory analysis of factors related to offending and victimization. Deviant Behavior, 29(2), 129-156.
Hinduja, S. & Patchin, J. W. (2009). Bullying beyond the Schoolyard: Preventing and Responding to Cyberbullying. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.
Hinduja, S. & Patchin, J. W. (2010). Bullying, cyberbullying, and suicide. Archives of Suicide Research, 14(3), 206-221.
Hinduja, S. & Patchin, J. W. (2012). Cyberbullying: Neither an Epidemic Nor a Rarity. European Journal of Developmental Psychology, 9(5), 539-543.
Kowalski, R. M. & Limber, S. P. (2013). Psychological, Physical, and Academic Correlates of Cyberbullying and Traditional Bullying. Journal of Adolescent Health, 53(1), S13-S20.
Kowalski, R. M., Limber, S. P. & Agatston, P.W. (2008). Cyber Bullying: Bullying in the Digital Age. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell.
Lenhart, A. (2007). Cyberbullying and Online Teens. Pew Internet & American Life Project, June
Patchin, J. W. & Hinduja, S. (2010). Cyberbullying and self-esteem. Journal of School Health, 80(12), 614-621.
Patchin, J. W. & Hinduja, S. (2013). Cyberbullying among Adolescents: Implications for Empirical Research. Journal of Adolescent Health 53(4), 431-432.
Schneider, S.K., O’Donnell, L, Stueve, A., and Coulter, R.W.S. (2012). Cyberbullying, school bullying, and psychological distress: A regional census of high school students. American Journal of Public Health, 102(1), 171-177.
Smith, P. K., Mahdavi, J., Carvalho, M., Fisher, S., Russell, S., and Tippett, N. (2008). Cyberbullying: its nature and impact in secondary school pupils. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry 49(4): 376–385.
Wang, J., Nansel, T. R., & Iannotti, R. J. (2011). Cyber Bullying and Traditional Bullying: Differential Association with Depression. Journal of Adolescent Health, 48(4): 415–417.
Ybarra, M., Diener-West, M., & Leaf, P. J. (2007). Examining the Overlap in Internet Harassment and School Bullying: Implications for School Intervention. Journal of Adolescent Health, 41: S42–S50.
Ybarra, M. L., Espelage, D. L., & Mitchell, K. J. (2007). The Co-occurrence of Internet Harassment and Unwanted Sexual Solicitation Victimization and Perpetration: Associations with Psychosocial Indicators, Journal of Adolescent Health, 41, S31-S41.
Decoding Your Digital Footprint
When individuals are online, they are assigned an Internet Protocol (IP) address by their Internet service provider (e.g., Earthlink, AOL, Qwest, Comcast, their school) or cell phone service provider (e.g., Sprint, AT&T, Verizon). This IP address is unique and is bound to a person’s current online session—whether it is via a computer, cell phone, or other portable electronic device. It is continually associated with the data transactions (sending [uploading] and receiving [downloading], interacting, communicating) that are made between one’s device and the rest of the World Wide Web and between one’s social networking site, email, instant message, and chat software and the existing population of Internet users. All data transactions are stamped with one’s IP address and the exact date and time (to the millisecond) that it occurred, and they are kept in log files on computers owned by Internet service providers, cell phone service providers, and content providers (Facebook, Google, Hotmail, Yahoo!, etc.).
When attempting to discover the aggressor behind the keyboard, it is vital to know the IP address bound to the malicious message or piece of content. Once that is discovered, the relevant provider can assist school police (or local, state, or federal law enforcement) in identifying the online session in question, which points to the Internet service provider or cell phone service provider through whom the online connection was made, then to the person connected to that specific account (by way of the billing information), and finally to the family member who was logged in at the time the cyberbullying took place.
From School Climate 2.0: Preventing Cyberbullying and Sexting One Classroom at a Time
Educating Students about the Consequences of Cyberbullying and Sexting
Quite often when you investigate a cyberbullying or sexting incident, you will come to learn that the “offending” parties didn’t fully understand the consequences of their actions or how what they did could have ever resulted in the trouble that they are now facing. Maybe they didn’t think that what they were doing was that big of a deal or perhaps they felt that no one else would ever find out about it. Sometimes they are genuinely shocked by the fallout. Well, they shouldn’t be. We need to be explicit with students about the possible repercussions associated with these behaviors, so that they are fully informed when making a decision about how they are interacting online.
Even though the vast majority of these kinds of incidents can and should be handled informally (e.g., by calling parents, counseling the bully and target, or expressing condemnation of the behavior), there may be occasions when a formal response from the school is warranted. This is particularly the case in incidents involving serious threats toward another student, if the target no longer feels safe coming to school, or if cyberbullying behaviors continue after informal attempts to stop it have failed. In these cases, detention, suspension, changes of placement, or even expulsion may be necessary. If these extreme measures are warranted, it is important that you clearly demonstrate the negative effect of the incident on the school or student(s) and present evidence that substantiates your disciplinary action.
You can also include an educational component in your response strategy, especially when dealing with first-time violators or those who engaged in relatively minor forms of technology misuse. For example, you could have the student write a paper on the effects of harassment or provide the student with a video camera and help him or her create a public service announcement about cyberbullying that can be used to educate the rest of the student body. Of course, you want to be careful not to bring undue negative attention to the students involved. To be sure, requiring students who were involved in a sexting incident to create a school-wide program about the topic might not be the best option (although it could be done anonymously). Your knowledge of the incident, the students involved, and the extent of awareness by the broader school population will help you to determine the best course of action.
Because every situation is different, you need to take the time to thoroughly investigate to determine the most appropriate response, taking into consideration everything that you know about the students involved and the circumstances surrounding the behaviors. There is no “one-size-fits-all” approach when it comes to responding to cyberbullying and sexting and it is therefore best to have a variety of response strategies in your toolkit (more information here). But it is also important that students are made aware of the potential penalties. They need to be put on notice that any online behavior that substantially disrupts the learning environment at school, or that infringes on the rights of other students while they are at school, is subject to strict sanction. This should be made clear to them in the student handbook at the beginning of the school year, as well as through regular reminders throughout the year.
Having tough punishments on the books will have little deterrent effect, especially if students are unaware of them. Better to prevent students from misbehaving in the first place than to have to discipline them after the fact. And beyond school-based sanctions there are other collateral consequences associated with the misuse of technology, including threats to their reputation, employment marketability, and even possible legal penalties. So take the time to educate students about the behaviors you are trying to prevent ahead of time, which should include an honest discussion of the potential academic, social, and legal consequences.
Adapted from School Climate 2.0: Preventing Cyberbullying and Sexting One Classroom at a Time (more info here)
Cyberbullying: Neither an Epidemic nor a Rarity
If you pay attention to the news reports of cyberbullying incidents (like we do), you would probably think that these inappropriate online behaviors are happening at epidemic levels. When we first started studying cyberbullying over a decade ago, Sameer and I would literally print out any news article we saw that talked about a cyberbullying incident – because they happened (or at least were reported) so infrequently. Now, it seems, cyberbullying occurs (and is reported) at an almost constant rate. To test this theory, set up a Google alert with “cyberbullying” and see how many articles come through every day. Your inbox will be inundated.
In contrast to this perspective, the argument has been advanced that cyberbullying is not occurring at levels that require our significant attention. Specifically, Professor Dan Olweus, who has done more to advance the scholarship of school bullying than anyone else in the world recently published an article in which he argued that “…cyberbullying is a basically low-frequent phenomenon and that there has not occurred a marked increase in the prevalence rates of cyberbullying over the past five or six years.” We agree with Professor Olweus on most issues but believe that the nature and extent of cyberbullying does warrant independent empirical, legal, and educational attention. We were honored to be invited to write a commentary on Professor Olweus’ remarks and those who are interested in this exchange can read our response here (you can also email us if you would like a copy of our paper).
So how much cyberbullying is really occurring? Is it an epidemic or a rarity? Well, the answer as you might guess is somewhere in between.
To be sure, we have covered this ground many times on this blog. You can also take a look at much of our original research that we include here. In Cyberbullying Prevention and Response: Expert Perspectives we reviewed all of the empirical research that had been published as of 2011 and found that across 35 refereed articles 5.5 to 72 percent of students had been cyberbullied and 6 to 30 percent of students had admitted to cyberbullying others. The School Crime Supplement of the National Crime Victimization Survey (which utilizes a representative sample of students in the US) added a handful of cyberbullying questions to their survey in 2009 and those data showed that 6% reported being bullied “by electronic means anywhere.” Many additional articles have been published in the last two years but we rarely see numbers lower than 10% or higher than 40%.
In our own work, we’ve now surveyed nearly 14,000 middle and high school students from a variety of schools across the United States. Our first studies were online convenience samples, intended only to gather early information about an emerging problem. The last 6 studies we have done, however, have all been conducted among random samples of known student populations in schools. Across those samples, the percent of students who reported being the victim of cyberbullying ranged from 18.8 to 29.2 percent (average 23.9%). Similarly, 11.5 to 19.4 percent of students admitted to cyberbullying others at some point in their lifetimes (average 16.9%). (for more information about our methodology, please click here).
Even though we have done 8 different surveys over the past 9 years, we aren’t able to look at these data in a way that identifies trends because most involved different school populations. We have surveyed students in “District A” three separate times but don’t see much of a pronounced trend that shows the behaviors are increasing or decreasing. Our friends at the Crimes Against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire have collected data from students across the U.S. in 2000, 2005, and 2010 and saw a modest but steady increase in cyberbullying between 2000 and 2010 (from 6% to 11%). Their numbers are lower than ours because of the different way they conducted their research, but since they have looked at cyberbullying the same way in three different national studies we can use the results to estimate that cyberbullying in general seems to be increasing.
So where does this leave us? Professor Olweus is right that cyberbullying isn’t some new phenomenon that is completely distinct from the bullying that has been perpetrated by and toward teens for generations. But it is occurring at levels that demand our attention and initial evidence suggests that it is increasing. We know that most cyberbullying is connected to offline relationships and that most teens who cyberbully also bully at school. Cyberbullying is neither an epidemic nor a rarity. But is it something that everyone has a responsibility to work toward ending. What are you going to do?
Catfishing as a Form of Cyberbullying
“Catfishing,” at least in the online world, refers to the practice of setting up a fictitious online profile, most often for the purpose of luring another into a fraudulent romantic relationship. The Urban Dictionary defines a “catfish” as: “someone who pretends to be someone they’re not using Facebook or other social media to create false identities, particularly to pursue deceptive online romances.” So, to “catfish someone” is to set up a fake social media profile with the goal of duping that person into falling for the false persona. And if this has happened to you, you my friend have been “catfished.”
Of course people have been falsifying information online for decades and users have been putting fake information on social media profiles at least since MySpace launched in 2003, probably before. This became more widely known as catfishing after a 2010 documentary film highlighted the real-world ramifications of online relationships. In late 2012, MTV launched a reality TV show to capitalize on the interest in this activity.
A few weeks ago Notre Dame football star Manti Te’o became the poster child for catfishing when he was the apparent subject of one’s online angling. As a public figure, with a prominent social media footprint he was a prime target. Te’o developed an online relationship with someone he knew as Lennay Kekua. It is difficult to know how deep the relationship was, but he did refer to her as his “girlfriend” and mentioned repeatedly that he loved her.
Te’o amassed a wide following when it was learned that his grandmother and girlfriend (Kekua) died on the same day early in the 2012 football season. As a Michigan State football fan, I became interested in the Te’o story because his inspired performance during his first game after the deaths led to a crushing defeat of my beloved Green and White. Soon, it seemed, much of America was watching Te’o and the Fighting Irish.
While it has been confirmed that his grandmother did in fact die, his girlfriend did not. Media investigations revealed that she had never existed in the first place. In mid-January the sportsblog Deadspin broke the story that Kekua was a fictitious online persona created by a friend of Te’o’s. From the information we currently know, it appears most likely that Te’o was an unsuspecting victim, though some question his innocence and suggest this was all just an elaborate publicity stunt. In a statement released to the media, Te’o has maintained that he was a target: “To realize that I was the victim of what was apparently someone’s sick joke and constant lies was, and is, painful and humiliating.” Whether a victim or a co-conspirator, the Te’o tribulations have led to renewed interest in a form of cyberbullying that has been perpetrated against others for many years.
Catfishing as Cyberbullying
Misleading another on social media with the intent to cause harm is not new. In 2006, 13-year-old Megan Meier began an online relationship with a boy she knew as Josh Evans. For almost a month, Megan corresponded with this boy exclusively online because he said he didn’t have a phone and was homeschooled. One day in October of that year, Megan received a message from Josh on her MySpace profile saying “I don’t know if I want to be friends with you any longer because I hear you’re not nice to your friends.” This was followed by bulletins being posted through MySpace calling Megan “fat” and a “slut.” After seeing the messages, Megan became distraught and ran up into her room. A few minutes later, Megan’s mother Tina found her daughter hanging in her bedroom closet. Though she rushed her daughter to the hospital, Megan died the next day.
Six weeks after their daughter’s death, the Meier family learned that the boy with whom Megan had been corresponding never existed. Josh Evans (and his online profile) was created by Lori Drew, a neighbor and the mother of one of Megan’s friends. She created the profile as a way to spy on what Megan was saying about her daughter. Drew was eventually acquitted in federal court for her role in Megan’s death.
Another, more extreme example, is the case of Anthony Stancl, a New Berlin, Wisconsin, 18-year-old who in 2009 impersonated two girls (“Kayla” and “Emily”) on Facebook. He befriended and formed online romantic relationships with a number of boys in his high school (again, while posing and interacting as these two girls). He then convinced at least 31 of those boys to send him nude pictures or videos of themselves. As if that weren’t bad enough, Stancl – still posing as a girl and still communicating through Facebook – tried to convince more than half to meet with a male friend and let him perform sexual acts on them. If they refused, “she” told them that the pictures and videos would be released for all to see. Seven boys actually submitted to this horrific request, and allowed Stancl to perform sex acts on them, or they performed sex acts on him. He took numerous pictures of these encounters with his cell phone, and the police eventually found over 300 nude images of male teens on his computer. He was charged with five counts of child enticement, two counts of second-degree sexual assault of a child, two counts of third-degree sexual assault, possession of child pornography, and repeated sexual assault of the same child and received a 15-year sentence in prison in early 2010.
Anytime someone uses technology in a way that causes repeated harm to another, it can be classified as cyberbullying. Setting up a fake online profile and communicating with someone for the purpose of tricking them into developing a romantic relationship – only to break up with or otherwise harm them – is wrong. It also violates Facebook’s terms of service: “You will not provide any false personal information on Facebook, or create an account for anyone other than yourself without permission” and “You will not bully, intimidate, or harass any user.”
That said, some people use pseudonyms or alter-egos online to safeguard their identity. There are a lot of legitimate reasons for doing this and as long as your behaviors do not hurt others, or mislead them in a way that causes harm to them, this is probably just fine. It really comes down to intent: Are you masking your identity to protect yourself or to cause harm to others? It is one thing to be protective of your real identity for personal privacy reasons, but it is another thing entirely to create an alternative identity for the purpose of humiliating, harassing, or hurting someone else.
Some might argue that catfishing is harmless Internet fun and that people should know better than to enter into any significant relationship with another person they only know digitally. It is true that people need to take care not to put themselves into situations where they could fall for someone who doesn’t really exist. However, that does not make it OK to use technology to mislead someone, and leads to a “victim-blaming” mentality that gets us nowhere. To be sure, everyone needs to be skeptical and cautious when entering into online relationships. Those who do should consider using Skype, Facetime, or some other video-chatting service that will allow you to see and interact in real-time with the person you are communicating with. You should be suspicious if the other person continues to be hesitant about wanting you to see them in real life or online. Also, don’t give out too much personal information, especially early on, and never go by yourself to meet someone in person who you only know from online. Go with a friend – or better yet a group of friends. They can protect you if something turns out to be not what it seems.
It is easy to be blinded by feelings of affection, especially when someone is giving you more positive attention than you have ever gotten from anyone else before. Just remember to stop and think about the possibility that someone might be taking advantage of you and proceed with the utmost caution. As they say, if something (or in this case someone) seems too good to be true, it probably is.