As society has become more aware of cyberbullying in the past few years, more children and teens are coming forward about being intimidated or harassed online. That’s according to Justin Patchin, professor at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire and co-director of the Cyberbullying Research Center.
High-profile cases in the media also have drawn attention to the problem, Patchin said.
Cyberbullying is formally defined as willful and repeated harm through the use of computers, cellphones and other electronic devices, and is done to harass, threaten and humiliate others.
Examples include mean text messages or emails, rumors sent by email or posted on social networking sites, and embarrassing pictures, videos, websites or fake profiles.
Research that Patchin and co-director Sameer Hinduja have conducted shows that as many as one in four middle school and high school students has experienced cyberbullying at some point. In the past decade, the research center has conducted seven surveys.
But when it comes to enforcement of cyberbullying, which often happens off school grounds, administrators’ hands often are tied.
“Kids, especially the older ones, are less likely to report what’s happening off campus,” McHenry County Regional Superintendent Leslie Schermerhorn said. “It’s a big gray area. At what point does the school step in?”
Assistant Regional Superintendent Michael Anderson added: “I’m not sure the school has the authority to step in. It’s a matter between kids, parents and law enforcement.”
Only a quarter of those who have experienced online harassment will tell an adult, Patchin said. But in McHenry County, 74 percent of the educators who responded to a countywide survey said students are “often” or “likely” to report being bullied.
And although it can be difficult to pinpoint if or when cyberbullying has led to suicides among children or teens, Patchin said those who have been bullied online or in person were significantly more likely to report suicidal thoughts.
Although they do see bullying and cyberbullying linked to suicide in many cases, he said, a suicidal case “could be a wide variety of things going on.” Most children who have been cyberbullied don’t commit suicide, he said.
Patchin said the center’s researchers talked to many teens about cyberbullying and how it affects them, and they’ve realized there is no escape from cyberbullying. Because children have constant access to each other through text messaging or chat on social media sites, bullying can go on at all hours of the day.
“It’s all encompassing; you really get no break,” Patchin said.
And social media sites allow for the tormenting to be very public, he said. If a bully writes something cruel on a victim’s Facebook wall, for example, everyone can see what’s being said, at least from the perspective of the target.
It can be hard to trace the source of anonymously posted messages or images, and deleting inappropriate or harassing messages, texts and pictures also can prove challenging.
Sexting, sending sexually explicit photographs or messages by text messaging, also can be a way to cyberbully. Earlier this month, Crystal Lake police investigated a sexting case at Prairie Ridge High School involving four girls and six boys. The girls sent sexually compromising photos by cellphone to the boys, who later passed along the photos to friends through the Internet and text messages. No charges were filed, and the case was referred to School District 155 for possible disciplinary action.
In Woodstock’s District 200, as in other districts, administrators are struggling to stay on top of Internet memes as they crop up on Facebook. Such memes involve a picture of a student with a message displayed over it in block lettering. The messages often call students foul or inappropriate names.
District 200’s Laura Crain, the district’s drug free project coordinator, monitors these meme pages as they appear for different schools. These posters are anonymous, and she has to alert Facebook, which will remove the site if it violates the website’s anti-bullying policy.
For teens who carry cellphones with access to Facebook and Twitter, it’s difficult to get a break from cyberbullying.
“With Internet bullying and texting, you have no safe zone,” Pioneer Center’s Cjay Harmer said. “Once you get on that computer, the bullying is going to start. ... And that’s where it gets really, really bad, because they’ll follow you wherever you go.”
Parents and children can combat cyberbullying by blocking communication with the cyberbully, deleting messages without reading them, talking to a friend about the problem, or reporting it to an Internet service provider or website moderator, according to the National Crime Prevention Council.
Parents also should monitor their child’s online presence, Crain said. A parent herself, Crain keeps her daughters’ passwords, and she requires them to be friends with her and other family on Facebook.
Youths who are cyberbullied often report feeling angry, hurt, embarrassed or scared, which can cause children to seek revenge on the bully, avoid friends and activities, or perpetuate cyberbullying.
Some teens feel threatened because they may not know who their tormentor is. Although cyberbullies may think they are anonymous, they can be found, according to the National Crime Prevention Council.
One of the critical components of combating cyberbullying is a positive school climate, Patchin said. When it’s clear to students their teachers care, it creates a positive community and a buffer when bad things happen. Children feel adults are more likely to respond in such a climate, he said, and students who reported being part of a positive school climate are less likely to cyberbully.
Additionally, parents should take an active role in preventing or addressing cyberbullying, Patchin said. They should understand what their children are doing on their cellphones and the Internet, try to remain aware of current technology, and demonstrate interest in and a basic understanding of sites such as Facebook and Twitter.
Patchin said parents should recognize the importance of technology to teens. If children tell an adult they are being cyberbullied, it should be taken seriously. Addressing and preventing cyberbullying takes a community effort, Patchin said.
• Northwest Herald reporter Chelsea McDougall contributed to this report.