The Disturbing Trend of Cyberbullying

With popularity of Facebook, Twitter and other social media, a disturbing trend known as cyberbullying, which particularly affects young people and sometimes involves damaging criminal acts, has come to the forefront.

Mark Alexander, a plaintiff’s trial attorney with Stewart, Melvin & Frost and Hall County Solicitor General Stephanie Woodard discuss this Internet trend.

Question: Please start by defining the term cyberbulling?

Stephanie: Cyberbulling basically involves the deliberate use of digital media to communicate false, embarrassing, or hostile information about someone. It is difficult to define in words because it is a relatively new and emerging trend. But let’s just say that “you definitely know it when you see it.”

Cyberbulling can take the form of a threat, malicious gossip, harassment, or impersonation such as hacking someone’s Facebook page for example. There is no criminal statute that specifically covers cyberbullying, although legislation is being considered at the state and federal level.

For the time being, we have been prosecuting cyberbullying cases as defamation under criminal statutes that date back to the 1920s.

Question: How is cyberbullying different from the more traditional form of bullying that involves physical assault?

Mark: In some ways, cyberbullying can be more hurtful and damaging than physical bullying. That’s because the victimization can go “viral” and spread well beyond the confined borders of a school or community.

With physical bullying, the bully and the motivation behind the bullying are out in the open and more clearly identified. With cyberbullying however, the shadowy, anonymous world of the Internet can hide the bully’s identity and allow the bullying to take place without fear of discipline, peer pressure or other restrictions.

Cyberbullying is more disrespectful and degrading. A common example is the posting of an embarrassing photo or video of someone on YouTube or a malicious rumor spread by a phone text, Twitter or Facebook. Cyberbullying also can have more long-lasting consequences, because photos or rumors posted on the Internet create a permanent record. Beyond damaging personal esteem, a malicious Internet posting can affect the victim’s future ability to get into college or get a job.

Consequently, the victim typically feels depressed and helpless. In extreme cases, such as the recent Rutgers incident involving a webcast video of a student’s homosexual behavior, the victim feels so hopeless that they are driven to suicide.

Question: Do we have a problem with cyberbullying here in Gainesville and Hall County?

Stephanie: We are definitely seeing an increase of cyberbullying cases here in our courts, and I’m sure there is much more out there that we don’t know about.

One irony is that cyberbullying typically does not involve low-level street thugs. We see this harassment being committed by good students from upper middle-class families. One reason seems to be that these youths have greater access to smart phones and other digital devices. We do see some cases of cyberbullying in middle school, but it is usually less sophisticated than at the high school level.

Question: What role can parents play in stopping or at least reducing the incidence of cyberbullying?

Mark: Parents should stay engaged with their kids and talk to them about cyberbullying. Explain to them how damaging cyberbullying can be to the victim. Set parameters on phone texting, social media and other forms of Internet use. Teach safe habits for using the digital phone just like you teach your kids how to drive.

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