Ah, the internet...that beautiful place where we can say anything we want without fear of retribution. We can just hide behind a screenname and nobody will know who we are. We can say whatever we want...true or not. Great, isn't it?
Not so much.
According to the organization StopCyberbullying.org, cyberbullying is when a child or teen "is tormented, threatened, harassed, humiliated, embarrassed or otherwise targeted by another child, preteen or teen using the Internet, interactive and digital technologies or mobile phones." If both the victim and perpetrator are underage, then it's cyberbullying. When adults are involved, it's considered cyber-harrassment or cyberstalking.
A few years ago, I was the victim of cyber-harrassment. I was a frequent participant on a wedding website that shall remain nameless. A few weeks after my wedding, I posted my wedding pictures. Mr. Brice didn't want me to...he thought we should maintain our privacy, but I still had that newlywed glow and wanted to share my happy day with everyone else.
Everything was fine until several weeks after that, when I started seeing posts on the forum that seemed like they came from me...only they didn't. It was my screenname, and if you clicked into the associated "bio", those were my wedding pictures, but I assure you, I wasn't making those posts. Whoever was posing as me was saying horrible things about people on the forum. Absolutely slanderous, just awful stuff. And people on the board started to hate me for it.
I couldn't figure out what was happening. Had someone hijacked my account? Did I have a split personality kinda like Dr. Jekkyl and Mr. Hyde, and my unhinged side was coming out at night without my normal side knowing it? Because someone was posting this awful stuff, and it for sure wasn't me.
It took a while of being personally attacked before a friend of mine (we'll call her Ally) finally figured out what happened and who was doing it. Turns out that someone had created an imposter account...if you hovered the cursor over the screenname, you could see that while I had a lowercase L in my screenname, this person used an uppercase I, but they looked the same at first. My friend posted her discovery on the board, calling out this troll for harassing me. The harrassment stopped. For a few days, at least.
Now I knew who it was, but I still didn't know why. A couple days later, a new screenname popped up on the board, purporting to "warn" me about two friends of mine (we'll call them Greg and Mary) from law school who supposedly were badmouthing me to everyone they knew. This new person seemed to know a lot of details about Greg and Mary, so at first I believed her, but it didn't make any sense. This couple had gone to my wedding...they were good friends of mine.
That's when we made the connection. The crazy beeyotch who'd stolen my wedding pictures and was posing as me to attack other people...she was Greg's ex-girlfriend! You know, my friend who allegedly was badmouthing me? Mr. Brice confronted Greg...it turns out that he was also being harrassed by the troll at that point...and it had spiralled out of control into real life, to the point that his fiancee, Mary, was being followed and receiving threatening phone calls. They even had to change the wedding date listed in their wedding registry, because they were afraid that his ex-girlfriend was going to show up on the day of the wedding and make trouble.
Then the harrasment moved to Ally, the friend who'd put two and two together and figured out who'd been behind it all. Ally, a Princeton graduate, had been in the process of buying a house, and a new troll showed up on the nameless wedding website board, this time with the screenname PrincetonGirl. PrincetonGirl asked everyone to look at the pictures of her new home...when you clicked on them, it was the EXACT SAME HOUSE that Ally was buying! And Ally hadn't shared that info with anyone else!
Needless to say, we were all really scared at that point. So of course, that was when we had to take the bar exam. Perfect timing, right?
Anyway, long story short, we ultimately got the authorities involved and got subpoenas to shut some websites used for harrasment down, as well as filed a restraining order against Greg's ex-girlfriend.
Why did this happen? Who knows. Best I can guess, the crazy chick saw Greg and Mary's picture in the wedding pictures I'd posted and it got her unhinged. *shurgs*
Anyway, as big of a headache as this was, I was lucky. Greg and Mary, not so much. They did get married, but 6 months later they were divorced...the stress of the whole situation was too much for them. :(
But in the great scheme of things, we had it pretty easy. Cyberbullying, cyber-harrassment, and cyberstalking can turn deadly.
I'm sure you've all heard about Megan Meier, the thirteen-year-old girl who hung herself last year after being rejected by a teenage boy she met on MySpace. The thing is...he never existed. He was actually a persona created by a woman living a few houses away.
What happened to Megan is not an isolated event. In 2005, Jeff Johnston, age 15, hung himself after 3 years of cyberbullying that his mother and principal were unable to stop. In 2003, 13-year-old Ryan Halligan hung himself after receviing months of threatening IMs.
Cyberbullying is usually not a one-time communication, unless it involves a deaht threat or credible threat of serious bodily harm. Kids usually can tell what it is, but parents often are more worried about the bad language used in the message than the harmful effect of the mean or embarrassing posts.
So what can you do? Educate kids about the consequences (losing their internet accounts, etc). Tach them to respect others and take a stand about bullying of all kinds.
Parents should be where kids can go when things go wrong online, yet kids often avoid them because parents overreact, or worse yet, the parents underreact, saying "kids will be kids". Most children avoid telling their parents about these incidents because they're afraid it will only make things worse.
And above all...don't say anything online in the anonymity of the Internet that you wouldn't say to someone's face.