Every day I drop David off for school I pray that none of the seemingly sweet boys in their Catholic school uniforms will bully my boy because I know his chemistry is similar to mine: he’s extremely sensitive and cruel behavior might stick with him long after those boys have graduated from high school.
But the bulk of harassment these days don’t happen in the school cafeteria where the teachers have a shot at catching it and stopping it. And those mean fifth-grade cliques of girls that have a shy, overweight 11-year-old too frightened to raise her hand in Math? The nasty stuff doesn’t happen in the classroom.
It all goes on at home. In the privacy of their bedrooms. Courtesy of the computer.
Many experts claim that cyberbullying–harassment that happens online–is so prevalent today that schools need to create and enforce strict policies to prevent it from doing irreparable harm, even taking a life.
Take the case of Megan Meier of Dardenne Prairie, Missouri. Her thirteenth year had been miserable at her school, as she was the outcast fat girl trying to fit in. She fled to the Internet, where a cute guy was flirting with her on MySpace.com. Except that he wasn’t real. His identity had been up by some girls who wanted to know what Megan said about them.
One night Megan went online and found a message Josh, the fictitious guy, that he didn’t want to be friends anymore. She was stunned and upset. Harsh messages went back and forth between him and Megan. Then the girls who created Josh enlisted other friends to attack Megan. “Bulletins” were sent out, linking friend-list to friend list, and messages were being broadcast all over MySpace that Megan was fat, a slut, a bad friend. That night Megan looped a belt around her neck and hung herself in the bedroom closet.
A 2007 Pew Internet and American Life study released this summer found that as many as one in three teens who use the Internet had experienced some form of harassment online. States from Rhode Island to Arkansas to Oregon have proposed legislation that would make cyberbullying between students subject to expulsion or prosecution.
John Tassoni Jr., a state senator who proposed a bill to prosecute students and their parents if the student is caught sending an e-mail or text message that’s disruptive to school, explained the legislation in a McClatchy-Tribune article on the topic of cyperbullying: “[The legislation] includes content that they send from private computers during non-school hours. The bottom line is that if what they are doing either from a school computer or from their own comes back to cause problems for the school, the school should be able to punish it.”
John Halligan of Essex Junction, Vermont advocated for strict legislation concerning cyberbullying back in 2004 after his 13-year-old son, Ryan, had been harassed for three years with one e-mail and instant message after another. Ryan, like Megan Meier, ended his life.
“The kind of bullying that kids are facing today is almost impossible for some of us of an older generation to understand,” Mr. Halligan said in the McClatchy-Tribune story. “I’ve had a lot of kids tell me that they’d much rather deal with a black eye or a broken arm than to have someone spread mass rumors about them via the Internet.”
I suppose in our information age–when you consider the power and influence of such social networking sites such as MySpace and Facebook–the adage “sticks and stone may break your bones, but words will never hurt you” simply isn’t true.