This special report, done in interview format, is presented in three parts. It addresses issues of bullying (traditional and cyber) and resulting instances of suicide in young people. Suggestions for intervention are also offered.
What’s new in cyberbullying? What are teenagers and young adults doing online that constitutes cyberbullying?
(Jacobs)Videotaping friends and classmates at social events is common. However, the line is crossed when an embarrassing incident is filmed and broadcast for the world to see. This happened to Tyler Clementi who was 20 years old when he jumped to his death from the George Washington Bridge in New York after a video of him in his dorm room with another male went viral; or to 14 year-old Matthew Burdette in 2013 when he was taped masturbating in a bathroom at school. After two weeks of torment by classmates and students from other schools, Matthew ended his life.
There have also been incidents of videotaped sexual assaults of teenagers placed on YouTube to the humiliation of the victims. Some have led to suicide as in the case of 17-year-old Rehtaeh Parsons of Nova Scotia, Canada and 15-year-old Audrie Pott of California.
Rehtaeh was raped by classmates at a party when she was 15. The incident was filmed and photos were released on social media sites. After a year and a half of torment, Rehtaeh hanged herself at home. Audrie suffered a similar fate. She was 15 when she was assaulted at a party by three teenage boys. Photographs of the assault went viral and Audrie hanged herself a week later in 2012.
Blackmail has also been used by online perpetrators against teens who have sexted photos to others (sometimes referred to as “sextortion”). The perp demands additional, more graphic photos or money with a threat of public disclosure for failing to comply. If this happens to you, report it to your parents as soon as possible. A crime has been committed and you need to be protected.
How big a problem is cyberbullying compared to other criminal behavior committed by juveniles?
(Jacobs) Comparatively, cyberbullying is not a major problem in the juvenile justice system in the United States. Other low felony or misdemeanor crimes take up the bulk of the juvenile court’s workload. Crimes including shoplifting, minor drug offenses, truancy and runaway incidents account for higher delinquency and incorrigibility statistics than cyber-crimes.
Recent studies indicate that 25% of students have been cyberbullied while 16% admit to cyberbullying someone else. (www.cyberbullying.us) Most of these incidents were handled within the school system as opposed to being referred to juvenile court for processing.
Is the law keeping up with cyberbullying? What are the consequences imposed on our youth for engaging in cyberbullying?
(Jacobs) Because of the nature of digital technology and the speed with which new apps and platforms evolve, the legal system is unable to keep pace with cyberbullying and its aftermath. The legislative process is slow and not necessarily the best method of addressing all social ills.
Laws regarding communication exist in all states. Those who harass, threaten, stalk or intimidate others may be prosecuted under local criminal laws. There may not be a need to create a cyberbullying classification to cover behavior that is already proscribed by law. Consequences for juveniles adjudicated guilty of cyberbullying range from participation in a diversion program to detention at a juvenile facility or prison.
It is not uncommon for a juvenile to be placed on supervised probation for a period of time with specific conditions. That may include a restriction on internet use, contact with the victim and victim’s family, and possibly restitution to the victim for counseling undertaken as a result of the bullying. Judges tailor penalties to the crime committed and injuries sustained by the victim.
What’s the connection between cyberbullying and actual physical bullying? Is there usually in-person contact between a cyberbully and his/her victim at school?
(Jacobs) Online bullying gives the perpetrator the opportunity to anonymously target his or her victim. Cyberbullying from home, for example, allows the bully to hide behind a computer or cell phone without risk of being identified in a face-to-face meeting in public. Consequently, most cyberbullying eliminates the need for real-time traditional bullying in the school hallway or elsewhere on campus. In addition, the bully can invite others to join in, thus creating a cyber-mob. There is also some evidence of bullying victims becoming bullies behind closed doors: an easy way to vent without detection.
(Sutton) The whole cyber-mob mentality is especially devastating because, although a victim might be able to handle the abuse of one or two bullies, the damage created by many classmates (a cyber-mob) can be, and has been, deadly. It’s easy for a suffering child or teen to perceive it as a message from the whole world.
How are schools typically dealing with the bullying issue?
(Jacobs) Many states have laws that require anti-bullying programs and education for all students. Schools are complying through a variety of measures. Some address bullying at the beginning of the school year at assemblies and individually in classrooms. Bullying posters may be placed throughout the school including the gym, classrooms and cafeteria. Schools have also included their bullying policies in the Student Handbook, Code of Conduct and on the school’s website.
Following either state law or district policy, reports of traditional or cyberbullying are investigated and appropriate action is taken. That may include meetings with the parents of those involved, disciplinary action by the school (suspension or expulsion), or referral to law enforcement when a crime has been committed.
(Sutton) Judge Jacobs is on the mark. I would add that there is also a movement to teach potential victims the skills for dealing with bullies when they encounter them. Here’s the premise: If a potential victim can learn to refuse to be bullied, they gain a life skill, bullying is reduced, and a victim mentality is avoided. Although it’s not a solution for every case and situation, it’s an idea that’s gaining traction.
Another idea that’s catching on in some schools is the active practice of social inclusion. One way of accomplishing this is through the use of daily peer circles. The concept is built around proven Native American restorative practices whereby every member is brought into and included in the events of the tribe or culture. I have never done peer circles in the schools myself, but I have done something very similar with young adults in drug and alcohol treatment. The overall results were nothing short of phenomenal.
This concludes Part 2. The third and final part of this interview with Judge Jacobs and Dr. Sutton will appear in the next post.