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Cyberbullying: The Online Crime of Insecurity, Ignorance, and Cowardice

by Neal O'Farrell on November 3rd, 2010

The following blogpost comes from ID Guardian, a blog that I frequent with my commentary and advice. ID Guardian’s administrator also keeps an eye on the ITC blog and provides us with the latest headlines for our Twitter stream. This week, ID Guardian ran a column on cyberbullying, a topic very much a part of the identity theft epidemic. With permission from ID Guardian, we are running this column in syndication. We hope you pay them a visit and comment.

— Neal O’Farrell

I love my kid. She loves to play, loves to laugh, genuinely cares about the well-being of others, and is polite to a fault. This is why I get a little upset when I see other kids overlook all these incredible qualities about her, and look at her as a target. They insult her. They pick on her. My child’s pleas to “stop” fall on deaf ears. I stepped in the middle of such a situation (because if they won’t listen to her, they might listen to the grown-up), and was shocked at what I discovered. While these backyard bullies immediately went silent, their parents merely shrugged and said “Well, kids are just being kids. They can work it out amongst themselves.”

Turning the blind eye. This is how bullying starts. And now, technology has made bullying easier, more anonymous, and accessible to a global audience.

In the wake of Tyler Clementi, the 18-year old Rutgers University freshman who committed suicide after being bullied across several social networks, cyberbullying continues to dominate the headlines, talk show circuits, and blogs; and alongside Clementi are other incidents like Asher Brown in Texas and Phoebe Prince in Massachusetts. With these cases from 2010 alone, State and Federal governments are now considering laws that will directly address cyberbullying with harsher penalties. The true tragedy of cyberbullying is, though, that it has been in our online communities for years, appearing in a variety of forms: Harassment, physical threats, intimidation, and unwarranted confrontation all carried out through email, websites, and social media. Perhaps a reason cyberbullying has not been seriously scrutinized until recently is the cyber aspect of the crime. As it is happening online, it’s not “really” happening. At least, not in the real world. It’s limited to the Internet. You don’t like what someone is posting? Just turn them off. You can do that on the Internet.

Smartphones, WiFi, and the ability to share media quickly and easily online, however, have made it harder for people to just “turn off” online aggression. Communications now come to you on your computer, your phone, and even your gaming system; and these messages can be easily distributed to others and even go viral.

Perhaps the most infamous of cyberbullying cases comes from 2003 when Star Wars fan Ghyslian Raza appeared on YouTube wielding a golf ball retriever as the two-edged lightsaber seen in Episode I: The Phantom Menace. As of 2010, this video (uploaded by students that regarded their cyberbullying as a harmless prank) has been viewed  more than 18 million times, just on YouTube. Another resource claims that from the spinoffs and other online video sharing servers, Raza’s video has been seen a total of 900 million times.

Raza was dubbed “The Star Wars Kid” and proceeded to appear in numerous parodies of the original video, ranging from outright spoofs on shows like South Park, Arrested Development, and The Colbert Report, to the jumbotron programming at the San Francisco Giants ballpark. This endless ridicule (that, I admit, I chuckled at, in the beginning…) drove Raza to drop out of high school and seek psychiatric counseling.

Cyberbullying, along with various technological avenues, also utilizes identity theft as one of its tools.  As reported on this blog, truly brazen, uninhibited individuals will go on to online forums under their mark’s credentials, and leave abusive or lewd comments, turning its contributors against him or her. In more lascivious settings, the cyberbully will leave a phone number or address with an inflammatory post, essentially driving unwanted traffic off the Internet and right to their victim’s doorstep. This kind of online impersonation can lead to cases of stalking, assault, harassment, or far worse.

Confronting such people, be they online or in the real world, is a part of life’s experiences; but this does not mean you cannot take precautions. There are strategies you can implement to help deal with cyberbullying:

Keep your child’s computer in a visible, open space in your home. This may seem to be an invasion of their privacy, but this is no different from asking your child “who’s house are you going to, have I met this boy’s/girl’s parents…” or asking your teen “who are you going out with tonight, where you are going, what time are you coming home…” Monitoring what websites your child visits, and applying security settings on browsers and operating systems is basic parenting.

Keep communication lines open with your children. I know in many cases this is far easier said than done; but by making sure your kids know they can come to you when harassment occurs, you will be kept in the loop on exactly what is happening in your kids’ lives. Remind your child of what makes them unique and that cyberbullies, in many cases, are usually working through their own insecurities. (This was a tough truth to come to grips with when I was bullied, but in retrospect it makes a lot of sense to me now.) While that may smack of Pollyannaism, the truth is that we all have something about us that is unique, and a reminder of that quality—especially from a parent—does abate a bully’s sting.

Find strength in numbers. From my own personal experiences (one cyberbullying incident as recent as two years ago), I found strength in the circle of friends I kept. It can be your best friend or a group of friends, but find solace in their companionship. For me, that was always a great help.

Have your kids consider consequences, even in private. Quite often, especially in social media, photos and videos are taken in moments that, maybe, shouldn’t be shared with the public. Do your kids appreciate that? As with what is said in Facebook updates and tweets, kids should consider carefully what they say or do in public, and regard their behavior as if it public and being recorded for posterity or shared with the world. “Being online” is not the same as “being in the privacy of your own home.”

Impress upon your child the importance of identity protection. Online impersonation can be easily avoided if your children learn to respect their identity’s worth. Teach your children not use the same passwords from account to account as that opens them up for additional problems if a cyberbully gets hold of that “All Access” pass. Discourage nonchalantly loaning out passwords to friends who might need to log on to a favorite network or forum “just take care of something.” User Identification (UID) is another form of PII, and should be regarded with the same care and importance.

Keep a print record of the harassment. Many websites will recommend to block or delete harassing messages, which is easy to do; but if the bullying continues or escalates to physical threats, a physical paper trail of harassing emails, Facebook messages, and now (with many smartphones) SMS messages provides hard evidence. If messages appear to be coming from an anonymous source, contact your Internet Service Provider for assistance in tracking the email’s IP address and exposing the cyberbully to their parents or to law enforcement.

Have your kids take a “Zero Tolerance” stance against cyberbullying. This is, perhaps, the toughest thing to ask of your kids as the desire to “fit in” and peer pressure hasn’t changed all that much from the time that I, or my parents, went to school. The intent you should be pushing on your child is that cyberbullying is wrong, that “just because it happens online doesn’t mean it’s no big deal.” Impress upon them that on the other end of the computer is a person, and that insults can hurt online just as much as in person. Not only should your child not bully online, neither should his/her friends. If they do, then suggest your child put some distance between those friends; or, to really get the message across, befriend and defend the person being bullied. If we want to stop bullying of any kind, taking away the power from those who bully is the Number One priority. If the bully loses interest in the mark, then they lose their power.

This will be the hardest act for your child to carry out. It will also be the bravest.

Be careful whom you pick on. I have a few stories I could tell, ranging from my own to friends of mine that rose above the bullying; but when it comes to stepping up to the cyberbullies and coming into his own, look no further than the Star Wars Kid himself, Ghyslain Raza, as the blog Geekosystem reports:

“After eight years of laughs at his expense – and a few campaigns in his defense – Ghyslain is back. Now in his early 20s, he’s reemerged as the president of the Patrimoine Trois-Rivières, a conservation society that aims to preserve the cultural heritage of his hometown of Trois-Rivières.

Revenge of the Sith this isn’t, but he’s putting his litigious experience to some use, getting his law degree at McGill University in Montreal.”

Not bad for someone who faced cyberbullying on an epic scale.

All this advice we can take to heart and apply, but along with getting our kids to adopt a “Zero Tolerance,” we as parents and as mature adults also must adopt such a policy. When kids resort to cyberbullying, they become predators. They prey on another’s resolve and exterior, and continue to push until something gives. Cyberbullying is not “kids being kids online.” It is harassment fueled by ignorance, hate, insecurity, and malicious intent; and enabled by technology. Hard to police, yes; but this does not mean we, as individuals and as parents, are helpless.

This is where bullying stops. With all of us.