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.
How young is too young for Facebook?
This is a common question I receive from many parents: “At what age should I give my child a cell phone or allow them to be on Facebook?” Of course this is not an easy question to answer since every child is different and parents themselves are probably in the best position to determine the most appropriate age. That said, I usually advise parents to think about allowing access to certain devices or web environments a little bit earlier than they might think is the right time. The issue really is that parents need to be the ones who introduce the technology to the child, not the youth’s peers. If parents wait too long or try to convince themselves that their child has no interest in Facebook, then odds are good that the child will learn about the site from a friend and set up a profile without the parent’s knowledge.
And some data suggests that they are right: Consumer Reports recently reported that as many as 13% of Facebook’s American users are under the age of 13 (about 7.5 million kids). And half or more of the students I speak to Facebook hasn’t completely ignored their rules, however, as they reportedly remove tens of thousands of under-aged youth every day. Of course if a user lies about his or her age when setting up the profile, it is very difficult for Facebook to know whether someone is underage so they rely on reports of violators.
This leads to another question I get: “If I see a person on Facebook who I know to be under 13, should I report the user?” This too is a complicated question. My response used to automatically be “yes.” If they are violating the rules, they should not be on the site. I have tempered my response a bit in recent months, informed by insights from colleagues, educators, and Internet safety experts. In general, whether or not to report an under-aged user depends on whether you have a concern about them being on the site—based on what you know about the user and/or what you see on his or her profile. If you are worried that their activities on Facebook could lead to significant social, educational, physical, or other problems, then you have an obligation to report (to the site or the youth’s parents, or both). If you see a 12-year-old whom you know well who is on the site and they have their privacy settings adjusted so that all of their information is protected to the maximum extent possible, perhaps it isn’t necessary to report the user. You still might want to take the person aside and talk about some of the concerns you have (posting too much personal or identifiable information, meeting someone in real life who they only know online, including gossiping or harassing content, etc.) to encourage him or her to continue making good decisions about their online activities. As Larry Magid, tech journalist and internet safety advocate points out, changing the rules to allow younger users on Facebook would create opportunities for the site to incorporate protections that just aren’t in place when kids lie about their age. This is certainly a perspective that should be considered.
Overall, parents should provide gradual and guided access to technology. Maybe, for example, you give your son a cell phone at age 10, but to start the only persons he can call are mom and dad. After a couple of months if he demonstrates appropriate behaviors you can add selected others. Then add texting. Show him the cell phone bill every month so he knows his contribution to the family expenses. Stress that the phone is a privilege that can be taken away with misuse. If he makes a mistake, take a step back. If he is texting at the dinner table, explain to him why this is unacceptable. If he is talking to friends all hours of the night, confiscate the phone for a while. I suspect that if more parents were actively involved in encouraging the responsible use of technology, even at a relatively young age, there would be fewer and less serious problems later in their adolescent lives.
Do We Need Cyberbullying Legislation?
I had a recent exchange with several colleagues about whether or not we need cyberbullying legislation, and if so, what that legislation should look like. I thought perhaps others would be interested in my perspective so I am posting my thoughts here. As always, you are welcome to provide your thoughts…
My experience working with school administrators and others suggests that they are looking for specific guidance. While I am not sure legislation is necessary for that, it could be a potential vehicle. While I agree in principle in the value in keeping the legislation very broad so as to allow for individual ‘customization’ for each district, that kind of approach can also leave folks confused about what they really “have to do.”
Many cyberbullying laws, for example, simply direct school districts to deal with cyberbullying by updating their bullying/harassment policies. But they stop short of specifically guiding them about what elements ought to be included. Merely appending “and by electronic means” is clearly not enough. Almost all policies that I have seen in schools that I have worked with have taken this approach. No mention of off-campus speech or how a school would respond to incidents that are initiated and carried out exclusively away from the classroom. No mention of ‘substantial disruption.’ No discussion of prevention, investigation, or the roles of particular players in the school. They may have satisfied the mandate, but will have nothing to stand on should they need to take action.
“Substantial disruption” is important to the extent that it is a standard used to determine whether or not schools have the authority to discipline students for off campus behavior/speech. As ambiguous as the term is (I would like to see it clarified for folks—perhaps through legislation), it does provide educators with a benchmark. Just because educators disapprove of the cyberbullying that occurs away from the school doesn’t mean they can formally take action against it (though informally there are many things that can/should be done). Unless they can demonstrate a clear link to disruption at school, formal discipline may not be allowed. Similarly, just because the behavior occurs off campus doesn’t mean educators can’t/shouldn’t get involved. They have a responsibility to ensure that everyone has equal access to a safe and secure learning environment.
As such, I believe the concept should be in school policies. Or at least some language should be included that clearly states the conditions under which the school will get involved in off campus behavior. Parents (and some educators) often assume that if it doesn’t occur at school the school doesn’t have the authority to discipline. That simply isn’t true. If the policy is clear about these standards, then all should be on the same page if (when?) an issue arises. In an ideal world parents, teachers, and others would work together to solve these problems without need for a formal law or policy.
I would like to see legislation that informs school districts about what actions they can/must take. Under what circumstances can/should/must educators formally respond to cyberbullying? Sameer and I suggest that the vast majority of cyberbullying incidents can be handled informally—by parents, educators, etc.—but they should be handled. Again, what is needed is clarity about what circumstances would warrant formal response. Perhaps many of the types of cases that would fall under this category are already legally proscribed—stalking, true treats, criminal harassment, etc.—but to clarify this under one heading for educators would be useful.
There has been renewed discussion recently about what behaviors actually constitute cyberbullying. This is an issue that we have commented about on this blog before and discuss in detail in our book (see especially pages 5 and 49).
One of our favorite Internet safety newsletters, Net Family News, recently reported on an article published last year in the Journal of Adolescent Health by Janis Wolak, Kimberly J. Mitchell, and David Finkelhor. The article argues that most estimates of cyberbullying are inflated because they include behaviors that aren’t really bullying. The authors suggest that to be considered cyberbullying, the behavior must be repetitive, represent a power differential among participants, and be “a part of or related to offline bullying.” In sum, Wolak and her colleagues offer the following:
“We do not recommend using the term ‘bullying’ to describe all online interpersonal offenses, because they vary so widely in their characteristics. We suggest using ‘online harassment,’ with disclaimers that it does not constitute bullying unless it is part of or related to offline bullying (page S57).”
In many ways, we agree with these arguments. In our research we clearly define cyberbullying as “willful and repeated harm inflicted through the use of computers, cell phones, or other electronic devices.” While admittedly this is an imperfect definition, it includes the four main components that we feel are important in defining cyberbullying: (1) the behavior is deliberate, not accidental; (2) the behavior is repeated, not just a one-time incident; (3) harm occurs–from the perspective of the target; and, (4) it is executed using the benefit of technology.
We spell this out even more specifically in our research. For example, in a recent survey of middle schoolers, we informed participants that: “Cyberbullying is when someone repeatedly makes fun of another person online or repeatedly picks on another person through email or text message or when someone posts something online about another person that they don’t like.” Using this definition, about 18% of the 6th through 8th graders who participated in our survey reported experiencing cyberbullying at some point in their lifetime (details of the sample and method are discussed in our book).
While our definition does not explicitly distinguish between incidents that involve online-only acquaintances and those that have an offline component, we agree that this is something worth identifying. We agree that those incidents that have proven most hurtful typically involve a personal relationship (the target knows the offender in real life). That doesn’t mean, however, that we should simply disregard those behaviors that are carried out among “strangers” online. They too can result in harm.
We also acknowledge that a differential in power between the target and the bully is an important characteristic of traditional bullying definitions, though we feel this component is not as significant a defining feature of cyberbullying. That’s because in many ways technology levels the playing field, or at least allows someone who may be less powerful socially or physically to neutralize whatever power differential previously existed. Moreover, technological proficiency by itself may give one person power over another person.
Finally, the “repetition” component of our definition requires additional discussion. Repetition is almost inherent in cyberbullying incidents. For example, if someone posts an unflattering picture about another person online without their permission, that might be a “one-time” incident, but the nature of technology is that the target may be victimized over and over again as the picture is repeatedly viewed. The viral nature of cyberbullying may transform a relatively minor form of harassment into a serious problem very quickly.
In conclusion, while we agree that the majority of cyberbullying behaviors reported in our research and elsewhere represent relatively minor behaviors, we don’t feel that makes them any less important to scrutinize and condemn. All forms of harassment, however minor, must be addressed by adults so that they do not escalate to the more serious forms. That said, it is important for researchers to come to a consensus about what constitutes cyberbullying in order to form a clearer picture about the online experiences of adolescents. In many ways, technology is forcing us to rethink the way we view bullying. Traditional categorical definitions of bullying, applied to instances where technology is employed, may simply be inadequate. At the very least, researchers must clearly spell out how they define cyberbullying in their studies so that others may be completely informed and to ensure that we are comparing apples to apples.