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Alexandra M. Schwappach/MEDILL

Key insights about cyberbullying from the 2011 Liberty Mutual "Social Media and Personal Responsibility Benchmark Survey."

When bullies go online, targets are constant, continuous victims

by Alexandra M. Schwappach
June 01, 2011

Chicago Student Code of Conduct on Cyberbullying

Acts that most seriously disrupt the orderly educational process in the Chicago Public Schools, include: “Use of any computer, including social networking websites, or use of any technology device or hacking into the CPS network to stalk, harass, bully or otherwise intimidate others, to access student records or other unauthorized information, and/or to otherwise cause a security hazard.”

Disciplines include being suspended for five to 10 days, referred for expulsion or having network privileges revoked for up to two years.

Sticks and stone may break your bones, but words can hurt forever.

This is the concern that parents and teachers have nationwide over the ever-growing problem of cyberbullying in children and young adults. 

Last August, Chicago Public Schools made cyberbullying a punishable offense. The problem hasn’t gone away, but the education and discipline are getting stronger.

The worst offenders, according to one expert, are 12-year-old girls.

“They use words that cut deep and get very graphic,” said Edie Raether, a business consultant who is an expert on bullying.

But bullying doesn’t stop when people turn 13. It doesn’t stop with high school. College students are also harassed online.

Liz Thomson, executive director of the Gender and Sexuality Center at the University of Illinois Chicago, said students in the LGBTQ community have experienced cyberbullying in the form of threats. 

 “Many LGBTQ students have cyberbullies threaten to ‘out’ them,’ Thomson said. “And maybe a student is not ready to share that with people.”

Thomson said it takes an emotional toll on these students.  She said it forces some to come out as openly gay early to avoid the whole tabloid effect of being outed by others.  

“You would think that, by college, people would be more mature, but that’s not necessarily the case all the time,” she said.

Cyberbullying is different from physical bullying in many ways, Thomson said. And trying to make someone else understand, especially an adult, can be hard for a student to do.

A student trying to explain that he or she has been cyberbullied to an adult who is not quite computer literate might have some trouble, she said.

“It’s an additional challenge because the adult might not be able to relate cyberbullying to kindergarten bullying on the playground,” Thomson said.

Bullying via technology is a whole new level of harassment, Thomson said. It spreads so quickly and is very difficult to get rid of.

Schools, parents and teens around Chicago can look to Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan’s “Stop Cyberbullying” website for information on the dangers of cyberbullying, both how to prevent and take care of it.  Madigan’s site provides fact sheets, learning modules for schools, an email hotline, quizzes and frequently asked questions about cyberbullying.   

Maura Possley, Madigan’s spokeswoman, said the learning modules have been used in dozens of training sessions.

To date, the office has trained more than 164,000 parents, teachers and students and about 12,900 law enforcement officials on the dangers of cyberbullying since 2006, Possley said.

Possley said some schools have a lot of problems with cyberbullying and some do not. 

“It really runs the gamut,” she said. “Some schools have experience with this type of stuff and some do not.”

In these training sessions, internet safety specialists teach audiences the specifics: “What they are sharing online, how they are sharing it, and who they are sharing it with,” Possley said.

“It is important,” she said, “for both teachers and parents to understand this because it is their students and children who are putting this information out there.”

Possley said a lot of children don’t understand the risks associated with online sharing.

“Technology moves so quickly and it allows for anonymity,” she said. “And students need to understand that they need to protect themselves.”

A cyberbullying hotline was also set up for parents or victims of cyberbullying to call in and receive advice or information from internet safety specialists with Madigan’s office.

Though adults are not usually as immersed in technology as teens are, Possley said it is important that adults are still engaged so they can protect their students and children. 

“The most important thing is that everyone uses technology with integrity,” she said.

Raether, the business consultant, said schools nationwide differ drastically when it comes to dealing with cyberbullying.

Raether said public schools in New Jersey have been the front-runners of cyberbullying disciplining and prevention. She said the increased concern over cyberbullying came after a case last September in which Rutger’s University student Tyler Clementi jumped off the George Washington Bridge after a homosexual encounter he had in his dorm room was secretly broadcast on the internet.

“They finally said: ‘This is enough!’” she said. “They laid down the rules and they started getting a handle on it.”

The problem with cyberbullying, Raether said, is that no one knows where to place responsibility. 

“Whose problem is it?” she asks. “Whose space is it?  Trying to determine that is like trying to determine who owns the air.”

Raether, who spoke on cyberbullying at a law enforcement conference in Chicago last month, has made bully prevention and education her priority.

“My work with cyberbullying prevention has been one of the better things I’ve worked on,” she said.

Raether calls cyberbullying one of the most serious forms of bullying for two reasons.  One reason is because stinging or menacing words are not easy for young people to forget.

“Words linger in the mind forever,” she said. “Especially hurtful words.”

The other reason cyberbullying is so serious is because cyberspace is a 24/7 device; it is inescapable. 

“If children are being bullied at school, at least they’ll be able to go home at the end of the day,” Raether said. “But with cyberbullying, children are being bullied every time they turn on their computer or phone.”

While bullies can’t be stopped in a day, Raether said, the first step to addressing the problem is to encourage children to report when they’ve been bullied.

“We have to educate our kids and let them know that they have a voice, and they have rights,” she said.

Another important step is to educate parents and teachers on the tools they give children—like phones and computers — which often spread cyberbullying.

“We’re giving weapons to warriors without wisdom,” Raether said. “Our children need to first be aware of the power of technology before they are allowed to use it.”

In Raether’s character-building program, she focuses on building children’s self-esteem and self-worth, something she said is key to bully prevention.

“How children think about themselves is important because it can prevent them from becoming a bully and it can help them from being affected by a bully,” she said. 

According to a Social Media and Personal Responsibility Benchmark Survey done by Liberty Mutual released in mid-May, 77 percent of social media users think that parents should be more responsible for resolving the situation if their child is a victim of cyberbullying.  Additionally, 69 percent of social media users think that school authority figures should be doing more to stop cyberbullying.

But Raether said it’s everybody’s job to end the bullying.

“Why are we wasting our energy trying to decide whose problem it is,” she said. “Let’s not put up fences. Instead, let’s create a caring community that can attack this.”