Over the past several years, high-profile cases of cyber bullying—like those that resulted in suicides by teens Tyler Clementi and Phoebe Prince—have pushed the issue to the forefront of America's consciousness. But experts disagree on the prevalence of cyber bullying, who's responsible for preventing it, and even how to define it.
In the past, students and parents have been concerned with cyber bullies who made threats on sites like Facebook or Myspace, spread online rumors or scandalous pictures, or stole passwords to e-mail and social networking accounts, says cyberlaw expert Parry Aftab, who was honored by Congress in 2005 for her work in cyber safety. But bullies have gotten more complex and malicious as Internet access becomes more accessible with the rise of cheap, Internet-enabled mobile devices and as social networking becomes more intertwined with students' everyday lives.
Aftab says cyber bullying is a pandemic that continues to worsen. She estimates that at least 40 percent of high school students have been cyber bullied while in high school, and that the figure is nearly double among middle school students. She says any use of digital technology by a minor against another minor that is intended to hurt is cyber bullying, and it happens to almost all students.
"In high school, they don't call it cyber bullying at all," she says. "They call it digital drama, they call it life. They don't want to call it bullying because they think it makes them look weak."
A November 2010 government report, "Indicators of School Crime and Safety: 2010," estimated that 4 percent of students ages 12 to 18 were cyber bullied in 2007. In a government report released May 31, about 18 percent of high school administrators said they had to deal with cyber bullying once a week or more. Experts say it happens more frequently than is reported.
"The reality is that federal data underestimates the rates of school violence, and public perception tends to overstate it," says Kenneth Trump, a school safety expert and president of National School Safety and Security Services. "Bullying is a buzzword because of some high-profile incidents."
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Aftab worries about instances of "cyber bullying by proxy," where a student impersonates another by creating fake social networking profiles, pointing to a story in The Star-Ledger, where an online bully created a Facebook profile for Newark, N.J., teen Nafeesa Onque. The impersonator operated the page for more than three years; many of Onque's friends thought the page was run by her. The bully posted sexually explicit photos and tirades online, destroying Onque's reputation.
Then things got violent: The impersonator would challenge other students to real-life fights, and Onque was attacked one day. Stories like this are growing increasingly common, Aftab says. She worries the internet will be used to incite gang violence in inner city schools, where cyber bullying typically hasn't been as much of a problem because fewer students can afford computers and cell phones.
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Aftab says students could create a dummy profile of a student they don't like and start fights with dangerous people, hoping for retaliation. "We're going to have real gangs—the Bloods, the Crips—targeted by the 13-year-old nerds in school who want to hurt a kid they don't like," she says. "The cases I've seen like this are vendetta motivated and very dangerous. These things don't go away unless someone can resolve them."
Who should resolve these problems? Administrators are often dealing with in-school behavioral issues, and are reluctant to punish students who take part in cyber bullying, which often takes place off of school premises on personal cell phones and computers.
"Schools can work to set some policies and behavioral expectations, but it's nearly impossible for school administrators to police the internet," says Trump, the school safety expert. "Quite frankly, I think parents and the community are putting unrealistic expectations on administrators."
He says parents and teachers need to teach students to use technology appropriately, but the "enormous gap" between many students' and parents' technological literacy can leave parents helpless.
"You can still go into schools across the country and start talking about blogs and Facebook and you get the deer-in-the-headlights look from parents and educators," he says.
Aftab's web safety organization WiredSafety is going to release a toolkit for schools that will help administrators analyze their legal rights to punish students for out-of-school bullying. She recommends schools take a "restorative justice" approach with cyber bullies, where bullies write a plan to rectify the damage their actions caused, such as removing damaging pictures from the internet.
Bills have been introduced in Congress to protect victims, but lawmakers have struggled to define what constitutes bullying. In the meantime, bullying grows more prevalent and malicious, Aftab says.
"I've been doing this over the past 16 years," she says. "But I'm losing this battle."