Cyberbullying is a new and growing form of bullying that has emerged with the advent of technology. It involves sending offensive, humiliating, or threatening messages or images through a computer or cell phone. It is most often seen with middle- and high-school students, although elementary-school students also have engaged in this high-tech form of bullying or been its victims.
Cyberbullying can take various forms, ranging from a cruel joke to a vicious threat. And it can be perpetrated by someone the victim knows or by a complete stranger. In some cases, cyberbullies are or have been victims of face-to-face bullying and use the Internet to fight back in an arena in which they feel comfortable.
Cyberbullying has increased dramatically in recent years -- to the extent that it is now a serious concern among parents and school officials. As one example of the prevalence of the problem, a survey conducted by I-Safe America, an Internet safety organization, found that 37 percent of 1,500 middle-school children questioned acknowledged being bullied or threatened online.
The pervasiveness of cyberbullying is due in large part to the wide-scale use of the Internet by children and teens. Indeed, for many, the Internet is a basic tool of communication with their peers. Often, the first thing they do when they get home from school is log on to the Internet. They use it to talk with their friends, to develop new relationships, and to obtain and convey information.
This online activity extends well beyond sending e-mails. Children and teens often instant message (IM), post information about themselves or others in blogs (online journals or diaries), talk to others in chat rooms, make comments on bulletin boards, and even develop their own Web sites. Cell phones, with their capacity for sending text messages and taking and transmitting pictures, have increased the high-tech communication options. For many children, these technologies are their social lifeline.
Unfortunately, a disturbing number of youngsters have used these same technologies for anti-social purposes. Because of the unique features of the Internet, cyberbullying can be devastating to its victims, perhaps more so than face-to-face bullying. With the mere click of a mouse, information about a person can be sent to potentially millions of people in a matter of seconds. And once that information is sent, it is typically irretrievable.
In addition, cyberbullying can be done anytime and anywhere, and does not require the presence of its victim; it only requires access to a computer or cell phone. Hiding behind a mask of anonymity, cyberbullies can invade a victim's home without ever opening the door.
Children who have been victims of cyberbullying describe a feeling of being trapped, because they cannot escape the taunts of the bully. Even the targets of face-to-face bullying can find a safe haven in their homes; not so for the victims of cyberbullying. The anonymity of the Internet serves to embolden cyberbullies.
Using Web sites or screen names that are difficult to trace, cyberbullies feel as though they can strike out at others invisibly with little chance of being caught. They feel freer to say things about people online than they would say face-to-face. Being removed from their targets and not seeing the impact of their actions, cyberbullies can delude themselves into thinking they really haven't hurt anybody. As a result, they are unlikely to feel a sense of empathy or remorse for their victims.
Cyberbullying suffers from the same obstacle to detection as face-to-face bullying -- children and teens often are reluctant to report it to an adult. There is a tacit understanding that "what occurs online stays online." Children might fear that if they report disturbing online incidents to their parents, they will be barred from using the Internet, or they might be afraid of retaliation or further ostracism if the cyberbully learns they have told an adult. As a result, parents and teachers often are the last to know about incidents of cyberbullying.
Although most incidents of cyberbullying are initiated at home, schools nonetheless feel the effects of this high-tech harassment. Often they have to deal with student conflicts and distress that results from cyberbullying incidents -- even if those incidents originated from home. And, increasingly, schools must deal with problems of cyberbullying that are initiated in school -- either on school computers or students' cell phones.
Whether the cyberbullying originates in school or at home, this is not a problem schools can afford to ignore. They must be pro-active in educating staff about cyberbullying, discussing the problem with students, making parents aware of the issue, and following up on incidents that originate in school.