Cyber Bully – Times Publications, October 2008
Thirteen-year-old Ryan Patrick Halligan turns on his bedroom computer and logs online for the last time.
For the past several months the Internet has become a virtual schoolyard for Ryan, where he has been bullied, threatened, harassed and humiliated through instant messages and e-mails.
The bullies called him a loser since he had a learning disability; because of his sweet, gentle demeanor, they spread rumors that he was gay.
The torment that once only took place at school is now relentless.
But Ryan has a plan to put an end to the bullying. For good.
And this last desperate act wasn’t his first attempt to stop the humiliation.
To combat the “gay” rumor, the lanky teen spent all summer e-mailing and chatting online with one of the popular girls at school. By the time eighth grade started, he was convinced she was his “new girlfriend.”
But when Ryan approached her he found their relationship to be a farce.
“You’re just a loser,” she told him, surrounded by all her friends. “I don’t want anything to do with you. I was just joking.”
In fact, she had posted their personal correspondence with Ryan online for the amusement of her friends.
For Ryan, a notably sensitive kid with a kind, tenderhearted personality, the experience was devastating. He never told his family what had happened; instead he went back online.
And this October night, in an online chat room, Ryan tells the bullies about his new plan.
“Tonight’s the night,” he writes. “You are going to read about me in the paper tomorrow.”
“It’s about time,” one of the bullies types back.
After his family is asleep, Ryan goes into the bathroom, strings up a noose and hangs himself.
Ryan was the victim of what has come to be known as cyber bullying – the use of the Internet, cell phones and other digital technology to harass, intimidate, threaten, mock and degrade an individual, sometimes with devastating consequences.
Experts say cyber bullying is a growing epidemic among young people. In fact, about 43 percent of teens say they have been the victim of cyber bullying within the past year, according to a report by the National Crime Prevention Council.
And as bullying has moved out of the schoolyard and onto the web, experts say it has become more aggressive and invasive, leading to serious repercussions for kids who are often already struggling with a host of other adolescent issues. According to experts, its effects are leading to depression, low self esteem and problems at school, and in severe cases, like Ryan’s, the torment can eventually turn tragic.
“I believe my son would have survived these incidents of bullying and humiliation if they took place before computers and the Internet,” says Ryan’s father, John Halligan. “It’s one thing to be bullied and humiliated in front of a few kids…but it has to be a totally different experience than a generation ago, when these hurts and humiliation are now witnessed by a far larger, online adolescent audience.”
A National Epidemic
The number of teens who experienced online harassment increased by 50 percent from 2000 to 20005, according to a report by the Crimes Against Children Research Center. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention now consider cyber bullying an emerging adolescent health concern.
“It’s proliferated particularly among young people as they spend more time online and become more computer savvy,” says Dr. Sheri Bauman, an associate professor in the Department of Educational Psychology at the University of Arizona. “It seems to be increasing exponentially.”
While this kind of bullying has occurred in different forms for as long as the Internet has existed, experts say it has really jumped in the past five years with the creation of social networking sites such as MySpace and Facebook.
Any technological tool can be used in cyber bullying, including e-mail, instant messaging and cell-phone text messages, says Robert Strom, a professor at Arizona State University’s Division of Psychology in Education.
“For instance, in some high schools you might go to the online voting booth and select from the five people who you consider to be the fattest in the school,” he says. “It’s a way of humiliating people and making them feel helpless.”
Well-publicized cases include an incident at a Pittsburg high school where 25 female students were harassed after an anonymous e-mail list went out ranking them sexually, including their names and photos. In Florida, a group of teens beat up another student in retaliation for online “trash talking” by the victim. But perhaps the most famous cyber bullying case involved 13-year-old Megan Meier, a Michigan girl who committed suicide after being tricked by the mother of a former friend, who had pretended to be a teenage boy who liked her on MySpace.
Experts say this type of humiliation is more damaging than traditional face-to-face bullying because it is more invasive, takes place in front of a much larger audience, occurs 24-7 and is permanently preserved.
“I think cyber bullying can change the face of a bully because you no longer have to have physical strength or intimidation, you just have to be a little computer savvy,” says Rebecca Lahann, a director at the Phoenix-based non-profit group Not My Kid, which deals with adolescent issues including cyber bullying. “It’s not your stereotypical tough guy anymore; it could be the quiet, shy girl in the class.”
Julianne Flory, 19, was used to being teased and shoved around at school. But when the bullying started happening in her bedroom on the Internet, she says it became truly frightening.
“It can be a lot worse than normal bullying,” she says. “The bully can put up messages where everyone can see them.”
The group of teenage girls, who had conducted a bullying campaign against Flory since she was 13, found her online through a social networking website. At first, to obtain personal information, they pretended to be her friend, but she soon began receiving nasty, insulting messages, saying things like, “You look like an ugly slut,” “you have no friends,” and “we’re going to get you tomorrow.”
Flory tried to seek help through her teachers and the principal, but those efforts did not stop the messages.
“My school was so awful dealing with it,” she says. “It was a joke.”
Then the cruel abuse turned alarming.
“They threatened my family,” she says. “And then they started to threaten to stab me.”
After the death threats, Julianne printed out the messages and showed them to her father. The family took the messages to authorities and obtained harassment orders against the girls.
Today, as an adult, the pretty, curly-haired brunette is no longer a target of bullying. She teaches Judo, plans to study sports science in college and eventually wants to become a physical-education teacher. Still, the abuse she endured for years has left its mark.
“I became very depressed and still have low self belief and confidence,” she says. “But I have great friends and family and have a good life, so overall they haven’t beaten me.”
Cyber bullying can have devastating long-term effects for both the victims and the bullies, experts say.
One in four children who act as bullies in school will have a criminal record by the time they reach the age of 30, according to research from the U.S. Department of Education. As adults, research shows bullies are also more likely to have unstable relationships.
“Years ago it was thought that bullies were kids with low self esteem,” says Sam Cianfarano, a former elementary-school principal in the Paradise Valley School District and a director at Not My Kid. “Research indicates that actually these are kids with high self esteem. They just like to have control and power and to exert that power over other people.”
Confessions of a Bully
Scott Smith may look like a tough guy. But his military haircut and large frame run contrary to his soft-spoken, sweet demeanor.
Years ago, however, Smith was a bully.
“Whatever I could do to threaten, harass, intimidate, scare – those were my favorite tools,” says Smith, a Phoenix resident. “I’d rather be feared than respected. That was my mentality.”
After years of picking on other students, one day Smith says he saw another bully tormenting a kid and decided that wasn’t who he wanted to be.
“I started to see how my bullying was affecting others,” he says. “By being a bully, I didn’t have any friends. I would try and push people away.”
Today, Smith, now 29, works with Not My Kid, speaking at schools about his past, hoping to be an example for kids and to discourage bullying.
“The Internet, the chat rooms, the cell phones are really just a whole other world of how you can threaten, intimidate and harass,” he says. “I can see a greater potential for damage for students.”
About 35 percent of kids say they have been threatened online, according to a study by iSafe, an organization dedicated to Internet-safety education. Nearly one in five have had it happen more than once.
Victims of cyber bullying are more likely to suffer from anxiety, depression, lower self esteem and higher rates of school absence.
Kids involved in the more severe instances of online harassment also tend to have more psychosocial problems – exhibiting aggression, getting in trouble at school and having poor relationships with their parents.
It was an ordinary childhood disagreement that caused 10-year-old fifth-grader Sarah Matthews to get into a fight with her friend Christine.
The girls stopped talking for the rest of the school year, and even though Sarah tried to make amends, Christine wanted no part.
Then, earlier this past summer, Sarah tried once again to reignite the friendship by sending Christine an apology e-mail saying, “I don’t know what I did wrong but I hope we can be friends next year since we’re going to the same school.”
Christine replied, “Who really cares if we’re in the same class. I’m surprised you even got into sixth grade.”
Sarah continued her attempts to make up with Christine, but the responses to her e-mails became progressively more insulting, even using mild profanity.
“They kept getting worse and worse and I finally had to step in and e-mail this girl,” says Sarah’s mom, Crystal Mathews, of Phoenix. “I was like, ‘If you don’t want to be her friend, that’s fine, but it’s not a reason to be nasty to people.’”
Sarah’s mom was able to become aware of the situation early on, before it got too severe, because she monitored her daughter’s e-mail and internet conversations.
“I know that obviously what she’s experienced is pretty minor in comparison with some of the other things that have happened via Internet bullying,” Crystal says. “But at the same time it’s like these aren’t things that this girl would say to her face. She had to use this electronic method of communicating this whole thing.”
Experts say Matthews did the right thing by monitoring her daughter’s Internet use.
Kids who are bullied online are often afraid to talk about it with their parents or school officials, experts say.
In fact, only 11 percent of teens say they have spoken with their parents regarding incidents of being bullied, according to a survey by the National Crime Prevention Council.
“Kids believe this abuse can’t really be stopped,” says ASU Professor Strom, “that it’s just one of those things they have to deal with and nothing can be done.”
To prevent and mitigate cyber bullying, experts say parents should monitor, supervise and restrict their children’s Internet use. Require children to share any passwords and block any sites you don’t want them going to.
In addition, parents should talk with their child about Internet harassment and encourage them to report abusive or threatening messages.
Several states have adopted legislation aimed at curtailing the growing problem of Internet harassment among kids.
Last year at least nine states passed anti-cyber bullying laws, with six others currently considering legislation.
Arizona does not currently have a law against cyber bullying, but in 2005 the governor signed a general anti-bullying law, which requires school employees to report incidents and establishes sanctions for the culprits.
Critics argue, however, that legislation generally doesn’t do much to combat the problem.
“Most of the laws are not written to be very effective,” Dr. Bauman says.
For instance, many of the laws only apply to incidents of bullying on school grounds while others only “suggest” or “recommend” that schools take action.
Bauman says parental and child awareness are far more effective at curbing the problem.
A Father’s Fight
After Ryan Halligan committed suicide on October 6, 2003, his father went online to try to piece together what had happened. Halligan discovered that Ryan had unintentionally installed a program that archived the Internet conversations he had had with the bullies.
“That really unraveled the mystery, because I started to find the conversations not only with the kids who had bullied him for being potentially gay, but also between him and the girl,” Halligan says.
He also discovered Ryan had conducted Internet searches for ways to “painlessly kill” himself.
After confronting the bullies, Halligan set off on a crusade, touring schools across the country, to make children and parents more aware of the dangers of suicide and cyber bullying.
“I think as parents we let kids use technology at too young of an age,” he says. “I think we would have avoided a lot of this hurt had we had put restrictions on his Internet use and monitored what he was doing online.”
Halligan also successfully lobbied for new anti-bullying and suicide-prevention rules for schools.
By telling his son’s story, he hopes to change the minds of people about Internet harassment and just how damaging it can truly be.
“Ryan was just a sweet kid, kind, gentle and sensitive,” he says. “He wasn’t a fighter. We need to celebrate those kids and not make them feel like they’re inadequate.”
Scott Smith’s last name was changed to protect his privacy.
Not My Kid: (602) 652-0163; www.notmykid.org
Center for Safe and Responsible Internet Use: www.cyberbully.org
National Crime Prevention Council: www.ncpc.org/cyberbullying
Measures to Avoid a Cyber Bully
1. Don’t give out private information such as passwords or other personal information.
2. Report cyber bullying to parents and school officials. Many Web sites, like My Space and Facebook, have methods for reporting abuse. Save the abusive messages for proof.
3. Don’t exchange pictures or give out e-mail addresses to people you meet on the Internet.
4. When something doesn’t seem right, it probably isn’t. Get out of the Web site, chat room, instant message conversation, etc.
5. Don’t send a message when you are angry.
6. Delete messages from people you don’t know.
7. Block users who send abusive or threatening messages.
8. Realize that online conversations are not private. Others can copy, print and share what you say or any pictures you send.