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Cyber-bullying is when a person is tormented, threatened, harassed, humiliated, embarrassed or otherwise targeted by another child, preteen, or teen using interactive and digital technologies, such as the Internet or through phones. It has to have a minor on both sides, or at least have been instigated by a minor against another minor. Once adults become involved, it becomes cyber-harassment or cyberstalking. It has become somewhat of a moral panic among parents and educators (although not nearly as intense as that surrounding child predators on the Internet), leading to seminars and programs teaching children about the dangers of the Internet, adding cyber-bullying to the more traditional pedophile and abduction warnings. It has become the subject du jour for "very special episodes" of TV shows (especially teen dramas) in the 2010s, as well as movies both theatrically-released and made-for-TV aimed at either a teen audience or their parents.
That said, it is becoming increasingly recognized that bullying matters to kids in ways adults forget about or cannot comprehend. Kids who have attempted suicide report bullying as one of the top reasons that they not only became withdrawn and depressed in the first place, but made the actual attempt itself. (Obviously, these are kids who failed at their attempts. It's quite apparent from those who succeeded that bullying influenced their decisions.)
As with most things about modern society, the media tends to hype and exaggerate for effect. However, there are several noteworthy unfortunate cases of cyber bullying.
On October 17, 2006, thirteen-year-old Megan Meier of Dardenne Prairie, Missouri killed herself after threats, taunting, and harassment from other students on her MySpace page. The students made a fake account and convinced Megan she was talking to a boy named Josh Evans who claimed he loved her. "Josh" extracted information from Megan that her friends used to humiliate her online and at school. What was particularly sad and egregious about Megan's case was the fact that the mother of one of Megan's tormentors was involved, allegedly as revenge for Megan spreading gossip about her daughter. Ironically, Megan's parents had enrolled her in a Catholic school precisely because they thought that the school's uniforms and ban on makeup and jewelry would help her fit in. The case led to the state of Missouri expanding its harassment statutes to cover online harassment. Megan's mother Tina Meyer went on to found an anti-bullying advocacy group, the Megan Meier Foundation.
Middle-school student Ryan Halligan of Essex Junction, Vermont had a learning disorder, was bad at sports, and was interested in music and drama, making him a typical "target" for bullies. The cyber bullies added to what was going on in school by sending messages by text and e-mail, accusing him of being gay because he "talked funny" and he "wasn't good at sports". He apparently got quite a few texts per day, during school and out of it. His parents tried to talk to school officials but it was more of the same "boys will be boys", and "learn to live with it". Ignoring the bullies did Ryan no good, and neither did his parents enrolling him in counseling. Like most targets of bullying, he bought into it, crying at school and having no way of "fighting back", which only painted a bigger target on his back. He took Taebo lessons with his father to learn how to "defend himself", which got him into a fight in February 2003; the bully he got into it with briefly befriended him after, only to tell the whole school about a rectal exam that Ryan had received due to stomach pains, the implication being that he was gay and liked it. The final straw came when a former friend of his named Ashley, who he had a crush on, pretended to be his girlfriend over AOL Instant Messenger, and proceeded to share embarrassing details of their conversations with the whole school, before finally calling him a 'loser' to his face in school. He killed himself that week, on October 7, 2003. He was 13 years old. Ironically, Ashley went on to become a part of her school system's anti-bullying campaign, fearing that she was to blame for his suicide. Ryan's father John Halligan also became an anti-bullying activist, helping to draft legislation in Vermont to crack down on bullying and enable schools to help students at risk of suicide.
The most recent example of this is the case of Jessica Leonhardt, aka Jessi Slaughter (who now identifies as Damien Leonhardt and prefers to be referred to by the pronoun "they"). In 2010, eleven-year-old Jessi was active on MySpace and on a video sharing website called Stickam, and was involved in the "emo" music culture of the time. At one point a rumor started on the streamer gossip site StickyDrama claiming that Jesus David Torres, aka Dahvie Vanity, the 25-year-old frontman of the electropop duo Blood on the Dance Floor, had slept with Jessi. While Torres has long been rumored and alleged to be a pedophile who routinely preyed upon underage fans, it was Jessi who became the main target of the gossip, which contained a strong degree of slut-shaming. 4chan eventually found out about Jessi and mounted their own trolling campaign. Jessi initially attempted the internet tough guy act, and when that inevitably failed began to post ever more tearful videos in response, which only fueled the fire and emboldened the trolls. The saga came to a head with Jessi's father, Gene, screaming a semi-coherent tirade into a live webcam at the various people who had been harassing his child; among the choice words and phrases he used were "you dun goofed" (although fanning the flames of 4chan trolling is close to the ultimate goof), "cyberpolice" (a non-existent police force), "backtrace" (apparently referring to IP tracing), and "consequences will never be the same" (possibly referring to some sort of legal action). The video went viral, making both Jessi and Gene targets for harassment, and the family began receiving death threats that led to Jessi being put under police protection. Gene soon turned abusive towards both Jessi and his wife Dianne due to the stress the whole experience caused, leading Dianne to place Jessi into foster care until Gene died of a heart attack the following year.
Various websites have been linked with cyberbullying and calls for this sick menace to be shut down. In 2013 it was ask.fm a Latvian site, which children in Britain and elsewhere used to post anonymous messages: the site is supposed to allow people to post anonymous questions and receive answers, but some of the answers were very insulting. The site was associated with four deaths from 2012-13.
Any site allowing the sharing of images or messages is a potential platform, but it helps if parents admit to not understanding it, as with various concerns over Snapchat. The fact that Snapchat messages are deleted after a short period of time makes it even harder to prove it was involved in bullying, despite claims from parents.
Studies and analysis
A study into cyberbullying published in 2014 found: "Yet in the construction of cyberbullying as a new threat to social order, the news coverage sometimes inflates the magnitude and severity of the problem. In doing so, the media work to misrepresent, misinform, and oversimplify what is a more complicated and perhaps not yet fully understood issue among youth today."
An article by Gavan Titley noted that Irish politicians' moral panic about cyberbullying was accompanied by cuts in funding to suicide prevention services and a hypocrisy over other factors leading to suicide. For example, the standard to prove that unwanted pregnancy was a cause of suicidal ideation, and thereby permit abortion to protect the mother's life, was much higher than the standard of proof involved in blaming cyberbullying for suicides.
- Stop Cyber Bullying.org
- "As Cyberbullying Moral Panics Heat Up, Actual Rates Of Cyberbullying Decreasing."
- Megan Meier Foundation
- Ryan's Story
- Jessi Slaughter on becoming a meme
- Adler, Paul. "Warped Behavior: Sexual Violence On Tour." Cuepoint, 12 March 2015 (recovered 7 September 2016).
- Notopolous, Katie. "How The Internet Failed Jessi Slaughter." Buzzfeed, 26 March 2016 (recovered 7 July 2016).
- Cyberbullying suicides: What will it take to have Ask.fm shut down?, Daily Telegraph, 6 Aug 2013
- Cyber bullying: “My daughter was suicidal because of Snapchat bullying”, Now To Love/Women's Weekly (Australia), Jan 19, 2018
- Snapchat: Social media app being used by cyber bullies to send terrifying messages of hate, Daily Mirror, Sep 1, 2013
- Snapchat bullies' messages that 'broke' a suicidal boy will never be recovered, parents say, Daily Telegraph, 13 June 2017
- Cyberbullying: The Social Construction of a Moral Panic, Linda M. Waldron, (2014), in Laura Robinson , Shelia R. Cotten , Jeremy Schulz (ed.) Communication and Information Technologies Annual (Studies in Media and Communications, Volume 8) Emerald Group Publishing Limited, pp.197 - 230
- The moral panic over social media in Ireland is a convenient distraction, Gavan Titley, The Guardian, Jan 7, 2013