There are many dangers lurking online – from identity theft to malicious software. Yet, many might not immediately think about the threats that can come from one’s own peers. Cyberbullying is a problem that affects nearly half of American teenagers, causing many to argue that authorities should take a greater role in policing this type of online harassment.
According to the National Crime Prevention Council (NCPC), cyberbullying occurs “when teens use the Internet, cell phones, or other devices to send or post text or images intended to hurt or embarrass another person.” Unfortunately, this phenomenon is quite common as the NCPC estimates that approximately 40 percent of American teens with internet access have been harassed online in the last year. Even more shocking – more than half have admitted to saying something hurtful online.
With the soaring popularity of social networks and pervasiveness of cell phones, bullying has taken on an entirely new form. Now teens can post hurtful comments about their peers using a variety of forums without the anxiety of in-person confrontations. Cyberbullies also have the advantage of a larger audience; a greater number of witnesses can read a hurtful post or mass text while only a handful of students might observe a cruel exchange in a school hallway.
In addition to the increased embarrassment, victims of cyberbullying often do not have the opportunity to confront their attackers. Just as cybercriminals can easily hide from law enforcement due to the anonymity of the internet, so too can teens looking to bully their peers. Through a variety of online means, such as temporary email accounts and fake profiles, cyberbullies can easily harass others without fear of repercussions.
The possible anonymity and viral nature of cyberbullying causes greater psychological problems for the victims. According to Robin M. Kowalski, a social psychologist at Clemson University, this type of harassment has been shown to cause greater levels of depression and anxiety for victims than traditional bullying. Since cyberbullying has become more prominent, there have been several high-profile cases that showcase just how harmful this phenomenon can be.
In January Massachusetts teen Phoebe Prince committed suicide after enduring months of bullying – both in person and online. Nine teens have been charged in the case; however, school officials who knew about the harassment will not face criminal charges. This tragedy begs the question: what can be done to prevent these events? In a recent op-ed piece in the Times Union, the leading newspaper for Albany, New York, Nassau County district attorney Kathleen Rice says that the bullying of Phoebe Prince “speaks volumes about the need for accountability and mandatory reporting.” Rice goes on to say, “We need to send a message to cyber-bullies that you are not anonymous and that you will be held responsible for your actions. To parents and teachers, we are all in this together. To victims of cyber-bullying, you are no longer alone. We are stepping into the virtual playground to protect you.”
Currently, only a portion of U.S. states (approximately 15) have laws that either classify cyberbullying as a harassment crime or make it easier for law enforcement officials to pursue cases. Federal legislation has been proposed that would allow prosecutors to charge those who engage in “severe cyberbullying”; however, the act is currently not illegal on the federal level.
Until the law catches up with the technology, parents and teachers will have to step in to educate students about the consequences of their online actions. Interested in finding out more about how to prevent cyberbullying? Check out these tips from the NCPC website.