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Cyberbullying: Know Your Boundaries

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By contributing writer Naomi Chasek-MacFoy. Originally published in KidSpirit Magazine's Conflict and Peacemaker's issue.


The Internet affords the average person unprecedented access to channels for communication. It has also become the new frontier for bullying.

This new form of online bullying is known as "cyberbullying." Cyberbullying is simply harassment or intimidation that takes place online, via texting or any other electronic medium. These new technologies have opened up a whole new world for the purveyors of spite and revenge. Not only is cyberbulling particularly painful, it is becoming more and more prevalent. When I researched the topic on Polling the Nations, I found that while only 19.5 percent (14 percent boys; 25 percent girls) of young people aged 13 to 18 sampled in a 2009 study reported being cyberbullied. And 68 percent of young people aged 13 to 18 (sampled in a different 2009 study) believed strongly that cyberbullying is "a serious problem with today's youth." Just as electronics have swept through our society, becoming more and more commonplace, so have the practices that piggyback on them.

Because kids often use these new technologies more than adults, they are more often the victims of such cyberattacks. These attacks range in origin: Some are the continuation of schoolyard tiffs, and some a way to vent venomous feelings without facing the person they're angry with (or trying to hurt). Although many of these encounters occur among young people, their ramifications are far from small. In 2006, Megan Meier, who was then only 13 years old, took her own life because of the attacks of a local mother posing as a teenager online. What is so surprising about this case is that it was a mother, who would most likely have never bullied without the Internet as a cover, performing the harassment. Because the anonymity of the Internet can pose many worrisome dangers, some parents have become overly cautious. These dangers are real, but do not create a legitimate excuse for writing off technology altogether.

While suicide is a real and heartbreaking consequence of cyberbullying, it is not the only consequence. Many kids who have had to face cyberbullying's crushing effects come away crying and demoralized, which although not tragic, can still cause lasting self-confidence issues. Online bullying can "influence how somebody behaves," said a New York City parent in an article on cyberbullying in the New York Times. Another parent in New Jersey was aghast at the deleterious effects of cyberbullying on her daughter. She stated to the Times: "She was very, very, upset. She's always been self-conscious, and in a way this just flushed out what people might been thinking all along." It is these kinds of situations which highlight latent insecurities that may cause enduring damage to young people.

Often it is the case that anyone can do or say anything online with complete anonymity. The social networking site Formspring has developed this anonymity into an integral aspect of the service it provides. On Formspring, you have the option of posting potentially degrading or generally harmful comments completely anonymously. Because of this, many Formspring walls are often rife with mean-spirited comments. In many ways, this makes Formspring the perfect place for a cyberbully.

The advent of cyberbullying indicates that technology is no longer a tool through which we enhance our lives; it is a way of life. Technology has infiltrated even the most ancient of phenomena, the schoolyard fight. This, however, raises the question: If technology can be used as a tool to hurt, and create conflict, why couldn't it be used to resolve conflict? The anonymity of these new technologies could be used for good. One who would normally feel uncomfortable stepping into a fight in real life, under the cover of the Internet, could break up a potentially fatal war of words. Our new forms of electronics could even change the implementation of conflict resolution in our society.

The Internet can now be used for an intervention as quick in transmittance as the originally hurtful message or as a mechanism to raise consciousness about issues of cyberbullying. In the same way that information can disseminate quickly to spread rumors and do harm, positive messages can go out quickly as well.

While new technologies are changing the implementation of conflict resolution, the newfound prevalence of cyberbullying could be changing the role of conflict resolution and conflict resolvers. Initially, spurred into action by many accounts of cyberbullying throughout the country, many parents took steps towards taking more control over their kids' online interactions, changing their role in these sort of school-based fights. This step was made possible by the new found prevalence of at-home technology, but would not have been feasible before. These, however, are kids' fights and perhaps, contrary to the prior situation, they should continue to be solved by kids, with a more limited, but still relevant parental role. Hopefully, this change in response to the tragic outcomes and hard lessons that have arisen from the new Internet freedoms we have today can help today's kids take responsibility for their actions, both on and offline.

It does seem that the microcosm of cyberbullying can tell us something about the trajectory of peacemaking and technology going into the future. Because everything down to the seemingly simple and necessarily face-to-face schoolyard fight is moving online, it seems that all our interactions are. Peacemaking is undeniably part of this trend. One aspect of this online shift with a definite downside is its immediacy, which can be dangerous. Once sent, communications can no longer be taken back as they could before the rise of super-fast technology. Statements can no longer be retracted, however embarrassing or deleterious they may be. This instantaneousness, although at times harmful, has the potential to be quite useful. Global peacekeeping, humanitarian, or military forces can use the same swift technology which cyberbullies use to save lives where vital communication before would have been nearly impossible. The split between the potential to do harm and the potential to do good will doubtless continue to appear as society wrestles with the prevalence of new technologies.

Because cyberbullying aided by new technologies is a serious topic with ramifications for our everyday lives, if we experience cyberbullying we should not suffer in silence. For many kids and teens, the first step in combating the corrosive effects of bullying, either on or offline, can simply be talking to an adult -- a parent, a teacher, or anyone else interested in your well being. If the bullying becomes more serious, it is important to seek professional help. Even before any bullying occurs, we should be careful not to put ourselves in a position that makes us vulnerable to bullying. The "Honesty Box" feature on Facebook, and the anonymity of Formspring are two such potentially harmful online locations. One other thing savvy Internet users should be aware of are "trolls." Trolls are people who go online and make rude or inflammatory comments to elicit a response. It is almost never a good idea to fall prey to their bait, or as one friend of mine said, "Do not feed the trolls." There are several simple suggestions provided by other friends of mine to avoid cyberbullying. One said "Don't fight fights online." Another noted, "Know your boundaries online." A final, but simple caveat to follow in online interactions supplied by an Internet savvy teen: "Be careful about what you say."

Naomi Chasek-MacFoy currently attends Bard High School Early College and wrote this piece when she was in the ninth grade. She enjoys reading, playing soccer, and sewing. Naomi lives in Brooklyn, New York.