[Air-l] "Cyber-bullies" article in New York Times

Willard Uncapher willard at well.com
Thu Aug 26 09:00:58 PDT 2004

The following item was published in the New York Times today and may be of 
interest to the list.  Against the backdrop of idealized, more 
communitarian notions of evolving community on-line, notions that may 
expand off-line, here we have disruptive conflicts off-line entering the 
digitally mediated environments. I was also interested in how the messages 
sent were linked to the woman's cell phone. Perhaps we see the need to 
re-visit some notions of how to instill ethics as well. The bullying theme 
of the article drifts on to other times such as young folk only gradually 
coming to understand the power and implications of Internet communication.




Internet Gives Teenage Bullies Weapons to Wound From Afar
By AMY HARMON / Published: August 26, 2004 / New York Times

The fight started at school, when some eighth-grade girls stole a pencil 
case filled with makeup that belonged to a new classmate, Amanda Marcuson, 
and she reported them.

But it did not end there. As soon as Amanda got home, the instant messages 
started popping up on her computer screen. She was a tattletale and a liar, 
they said. Shaken, she typed back, "You stole my stuff!" She was a 
"stuck-up bitch," came the instant response in the box on the screen, 
followed by a series of increasingly ugly epithets.

That evening, Amanda's mother tore her away from the computer to go to a 
basketball game with her family. But the barrage of electronic insults did 
not stop. Like a lot of other teenagers, Amanda has her Internet messages 
automatically forwarded to her cellphone, and by the end of the game she 
had received 50 - the limit of its capacity.

"It seems like people can say a lot worse things to someone online than 
when they're actually talking to them," said Amanda, 14, of Birmingham, 
Mich., who transferred to the school last year. The girls never said 
another word to her in person, she said.

The episode reflects one of many ways that the technology lubricating the 
social lives of teenagers is amplifying standard adolescent cruelty. No 
longer confined to school grounds or daytime hours, "cyberbullies" are 
pursuing their quarries into their own bedrooms. Tools like e-mail messages 
and Web logs enable the harassment to be both less obvious to adults and 
more publicly humiliating, as gossip, put-downs and embarrassing pictures 
are circulated among a wide audience of peers with a few clicks.

The technology, which allows its users to inflict pain without being forced 
to see its effect, also seems to incite a deeper level of meanness. 
Psychologists say the distance between bully and victim on the Internet is 
leading to an unprecedented - and often unintentional - degree of 
brutality, especially when combined with a typical adolescent's lack of 
impulse control and underdeveloped empathy skills.

"We're always talking about protecting kids on the Internet from adults and 
bad people," said Parry Aftab, executive director of 
http://WiredSafety.org, a nonprofit group that has been fielding a growing 
number of calls from parents and school administrators worried about 
bullying. "We forget that we sometimes need to protect kids from kids."

For many teenagers, online harassment has become a part of everyday life. 
But schools, which tend to focus on problems that arise on their property, 
and parents, who tend to assume that their children know better than they 
do when it comes to computers, have long overlooked it. Only recently has 
it become pervasive enough that even the adults have started paying attention.

Like many other guidance counselors, Susan Yuratovac, a school psychologist 
at Hilltop Elementary School in Beachwood, Ohio, has for years worked with 
a wide spectrum of teenage aggression, including physical bullying and 
sexual harassment. This summer, Ms. Yuratovac said, she is devising a new 
curriculum to address the shift to electronic taunting.

"I have kids coming into school upset daily because of what happened on the 
Internet the night before," Ms. Yuratovac said. " 'We were online last 
night and somebody said I was fat,' or 'They asked me why I wear the same 
pair of jeans every day,' or 'They say I have Wal-Mart clothes.' "

Recently, Ms. Yuratovac intervened when a 12-year-old girl showed her an 
instant message exchange in which a boy in her class wrote, "My brother 
says you have really good boobs." Boys make many more explicit sexual 
comments online than off, counselors say.

"I don't think the girl is fearful the boy is going to accost her, but I do 
think she is embarrassed," Ms. Yuratovac said. "They know it's mean, it's 
risky, it's nasty. I worry what it does to them inside. It's the kind of 
thing you carry with you for a lot of years."

The new weapons in the teenage arsenal of social cruelty include stealing 
each others' screen names and sending inflammatory messages to friends or 
crush-objects, forwarding private material to people for whom it was never 
intended and anonymously posting derogatory comments about fellow students 
on Web journals called blogs.

"Everyone hates you," read an anonymous comment directed toward a girl who 
had signed her name to a post about exams on a blog run by middle-school 
students at the Maret School in Washington, D.C., last term.

"They would talk about one girl in particular who had an acne problem, 
calling her pimpleface and things like that which was really mean," one 
Maret student said. "That stuck with me because I've had acne, too."

One of the girls who started the blog said she and her friends had deleted 
all the posts because so many people - including some parents - began to 

"I didn't see why they cared so much," said the girl, who preferred not to 
be identified. "It's obviously not as serious as it seems if no one's 
coming up to you and saying it."

Rosalind Wiseman, whose book "Queen Bees and Wannabes," was the basis for 
the recent movie "Mean Girls," said that online bullying had a particular 
appeal for girls, who specialize in emotional rather than physical 
harassment and strive to avoid direct confrontation. But boys do their fair 
share as well, often using modern methods to betray the trust of adolescent 

For instance, last spring, when an eighth-grade girl at Horace Mann School 
in the Riverdale section of the Bronx, sent a digital video of herself 
masturbating to a male classmate on whom she had a crush, it quickly 
appeared on a file-sharing network that teenagers use to trade music. 
Hundreds of New York private school students saw the video, in which the 
girl's face was clearly visible, and it was available to a worldwide 
audience of millions.

Students would go online at school while the girl was there and watch it, 
said one student from another school, who declined to be named. Horace Mann 
officials did not reply to requests for comment this week, but the student 
newspaper reported at the time that the school had set up out-of-school 
counseling for the students directly involved and held assemblies to 
discuss issues of sexuality and communication.

The incident is not an isolated one. In June, a video showing two Scarsdale 
High School freshman girls in a sexual encounter, apparently taking 
direction from boys in the background, prompted an investigation by the 
Westchester County district attorney's office when a parent reported that 
students were sending it to each other by e-mail. A nude picture of a 
15-year-old in Wycoff, N.J., taken with a camera phone, is still 
circulating after she sent it by e-mail it to her boyfriend and he 
forwarded it to his friends, other students said.

Online lists rating a school's girls as "hottest" "ugliest" or "most 
boring" are common. One that surfaced at Horace Greeley High School in 
Chappaqua, N.Y., a few years ago, listed names, phone numbers and what were 
said to be the sexual exploits of dozens of girls.

But girls are not the only victims of Internet-fueled gossip. A seventh 
grader at Nightingale-Bamford School in Manhattan said she had recently 
seen an online video a boy had made of himself singing a song to a girl he 
liked, who promptly posted it all over the Internet. "I feel really bad for 
the guy," she said.

To a large degree, psychologists say, teenagers are being tripped up by the 
same property of the Internet that has compelled many adults to fire off an 
e-mail message they later regret: the ability to press "send" and watch it 
disappear makes it seem less real.

"It isn't quite the same as taking a dirty picture of your girlfriend and 
showing it to everyone in the school when you're standing there holding the 
picture," said Sherry Turkle, a psychologist at the Massachusetts Institute 
of Technology and author of "Life on the Screen." "There's something about 
the medium that has a coarsening effect."

But a growing number of teenagers are learning the hard way that words sent 
into cyberspace can have more severe consequences than a telephone 
conversation or a whispered confidence. As ephemeral as they seem, instant 
messages (better known as I.M.'s) form a written record often wielded as a 
potent weapon for adolescent betrayal and torment.

A sophomore girl at Fieldston High School in the Bronx, for instance, 
agreed not to return this fall after a racist comment she wrote in an 
instant message to a friend about a boy who had spurned her ignited 
controversy last spring. The friend forwarded the message to the boy, and 
copies were distributed around the school the next day, people familiar 
with the situation said.

Fieldston High officials declined to comment, as did the girl and her 
parents, who requested that her name be withheld to protect her at her new 
school. But several parents criticized the school administration for 
pressuring the girl to leave rather than using the incident as a means to 
teach a lesson about racist speech - and the pitfalls of instant messaging.

"When you say things over the Internet, it feels like you are spewing into 
your diary," said Sandra Pirie Carson, the parent of a Fieldston graduate 
and a lawyer who offered to mediate between the school and the girl's 
family. "If she had said those offensive things to her friend on the phone, 
I have a feeling the friend wouldn't have called him and repeated what she 
said, and even if she had, I doubt it would have had the same effect."

Many schools, ill-equipped to handle these new situations, are holding 
assemblies to talk about them and experts in traditional bullying are 
scrambling to develop strategies to prevent them.

"It's so nebulous; it's not happening in the lunchroom, it's not happening 
on the school bus, yet it can spread so quickly," said Mary Worthington, 
the elementary education coordinator for Network of Victim Assistance, a 
counseling organization in Bucks County, Pa. "Over the last year when I've 
been out in schools to do our regular bullying program the counselors will 
say, 'Can you talk about e-mails or I.M.'s?' "

For parents of several students at the Gillispie School in San Diego, such 
strategies were to be developed on the fly when online threats between 
their children and those at another school turned into a more classic form 
of bullying.

About 30 students from Muirlands School showed up at Gillispie one 
afternoon last spring, carrying skateboards over their heads and calling 
out the screen name of one of the boys with whom they had been chatting 
online. Kim Penney, the mother of one of the Gillispie boys, said she had 
since removed the Internet cable from the computer in her son's room and 
insisted that he hold online conversations only where she could see them.

"It was frightening to see the physical manifestation of this back and 
forth on I.M.," Ms. Penney said. "I just never thought of it as such a big 


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