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Fighting wires with wires

No one expects to get hurt in the privacy of his or her own home, but social networking sites have become a whole new stomping ground for school yard bullies.

Cyber communication has invaded the lives of millions — sometimes seriously, as in the case of a MySpace-related suicide in 2006 and stalking on a popular Internet forum called 4-Chan last year. National organizations are trying to teach youths about cyber safety and give them tools to combat cyber-bullying.

According to a study by Amanda Lenhart of the Pew Internet and American Life Project, “about one-third of all teenagers who use the Internet say they have been targets of a range of annoying and potentially menacing online activities.”

This includes receiving threatening messages, having their e-mails forwarded without consent, having their pictures posted without permission and having rumors about them spread online.

Michael Berson, USF professor of social science and education, said one of the
biggest reasons cyber-bullying poses a problem to teens is the anonymity the Internet offers.

“When (bullying) is public, the pressure becomes greater on the victim. In the past, bullying was a private matter — at least (victims) had respite from it,” he said. “Now people join in and it grows and it has permanency. Somebody posts a picture and it’s not flattering but it’s not illegal. Or a message — everybody gets to see that.”

The organizations working to stop cyber-bullying use national advertising campaigns, YouTube, Web sites and PSAs to reach kids., a Web site collaboratively sponsored and created by the Family Violence Prevention Fund, the Office on Violence Against Women and the Ad Council, has “callout cards” that kids can download and send by e-mail, text message or messages on networking sites such as MySpace and Facebook.

The comical and brightly colored “callout cards” are tools to help young people fend off inappropriate messaging behavior, from texting too much (which the site calls “textual harassment”) to soliciting nude pictures.

Another Web site, Childnet International’s, contains a video called “Let’s Fight it Together” with Ben Folds’ “Still Fighting It” as the soundtrack. The film shows a boy being cyber-bullied and implies that the bullies are arrested as a result.

Since online communication is private, messages target teenagers rather than parents and use technologically savvy techniques.

“I do think that using technologies that young people are familiar with is a great way to combat cyber-bulling,” Berson said.

Dewey  Rundus,  professor  of  computer science and engineering, said cyber-bullying is hard to monitor.

“Phones are given to students so that they have a chance to be contacted in case of emergency,” he said. “Once the students have cell phones, unfortunately they will be used for other things.”

The cyber world contains many more people than a child will otherwise encounter in a day. The goal of these campaigns is to teach children how to stay safe among such a large population.

“What is insidious about the concept of cyber-bulling is that it is 24/7,” Berson said. “You can’t turn it off. The impact of digitally based bullying becomes tenfold because everyone sees it, and there is an issue of permanency.”

The anti-bullying Web sites’ collective purpose is to show children that just as citizens of the real world have responsibilities, so do citizens of the cyber world.

“We know it’s not OK to bully people in the real world, but (the question is), how does that extend out to the cyber world?” Berson said.

To find out more about cyber-bullying and how to fight it, visit