The Big Six - The Weapons of Choice
Certain technologies and networks are more prone to cyberbullying than others. They fall into one of two categories, either the most popular of all technologies and networks, or the most obscure and fringe. The popular ones are selected for ease of communication and dissemination and, if the cyberbullying is planned, the least likelihood of detection. If an obscure or fringe technology or network is used, it is selected because it has a special meaning for the victim. It might be their favorite game site, bulletin board, or forum. It could also be chosen for an audience that will support and not condemn the cyberbully or his actions.
Most cyberbullying occurs using one of six major avenues:
- Social networks such as Facebook and MySpace;
- Instant messaging such as AIM, MSN, or Yahoo;
- Webcams and video chat services like iChat;
- For the younger set, virtual worlds like Club Penguin, Webkinz, and Stardolls;
- For boys and gaming girls, massively multiplayer gaming devices, like Xbox 360 and massively multiplayer online game (MMOG) sites, like Runescape; and
Cellphones and social networks run neck-to-neck as the weapons of choice preferred by most teen cyberbullies. Young cyberbullies turn to password theft and virtual worlds.
Social Networks (MySpace, Facebook, etc.)
Social networks first gained broad appeal in 2005 when MySpace went from three million users to more than 50 million. It now has more than 100 million profiles. At that time, Facebook was still restricted to university and college students with institutional e-mail addresses. Since then, it opened to all users aged 13 and over and as of April 15, 2010 had 400 million users of its own and has eclipsed MySpace as a favorite social network for teens in the U.S. and Canada. Newer networks, such as myYearbook, are catching on as well.
Unfortunately, with the rise in popularity of social networking has come a related rise in cyberbullying. Students create fake profiles posing as their victims, designed to embarrass or harass them. They guess or misuse their passwords and break into their accounts, harassing their victim’s friends from the victim’s own account, posing as them. They post on their profiles or “walls,” post real or doctored pictures, and add quizzes and applications like the “Honesty Box” to facilitate anonymous and harassing posts.
Because an entire school population may comprise a “group” on the network, the cyberbullying can spread quickly to everyone who matters—the others in the school. “I hate ___” groups can be quickly constructed, enabling group harassment and dissemination of cyberbullying messages.
Add-ons (or “widgets”), like bumper stickers, polls, quizzes, and banners, can be used to spread the cyberbullying from profile to profile, attract an audience, and make it easier to join in.
In cyberbullying campaigns designed to get lots of students involved, no technology is faster or more powerful than social networks. They are among the favored methods of Mean Girl cyberbullies. Together with cellphones, they involve the greatest single risk of cyberbullying.
Being cyberbullied on a social network is not inevitable. The better protected the personal information of any student using a social network is, the more exclusive the list of “friends” or members of preferred groups which have access to personal information, the better selected and protected their password, the less likely cyberbullying will result. (Note that if there is an offline bullying campaign, no matter how careful a student is, the bullies may use social networks as weapons and a way to spread the torment further and faster.)
Virtual worlds control most of our elementary school students’ time and attention. Webkinz recently created a virtual world for 3 to 6-year-olds and many early and pre-readers can navigate effectively in their favorite virtual worlds. Whether they receive an offline plush animal with a code embedded in its collar, a subscription to Club Penguin, membership in KidZui, or use Lego, Stardoll, or the magical worlds of Disney online, our younger students are mesmerized.
They earn points on these sites that can be spent on decorating their “virtual clubhouses,” buying articles of clothing for their avatars, accessorizing them, or feeding and caring for them. These points, or “gold” as they are called in the industry, are often the motive for the cyberbullying.
Students will guess, misuse, or otherwise access another student’s passwords to steal their “gold.” Sometimes they will change the password, so the accountholder can’t access it again. So many kids complained about having others steal their “gold” in Club Penguin that they now scam Club Penguin by claiming that their points were stolen just to get more. It happens in droves.
Sometimes students, thinking they are better at earning these game points, will access a friend’s account without their authorization to earn points for them. While their motives are clean, their methods and unauthorized use of another’s account are not.
When virtual worlds offer unfiltered communication tools, they are often used to harass someone in the world. When communication tools are filtered or limited to preapproved dropdown menus and phrases, they name their avatars to harass others “Sally is fat” becomes the name of a new avatar and is sent to introduce itself to the real Sally. They name their rooms, sections of the world, anything they can, to hurt the feelings of others.
Educators know that the cherubic third to fifth graders may not be as sweet as they appear. This is the group that prefers extortion to other methods of cyberbullying and they are more inventive than their teen counterparts when coming up with novel ways to torment each other using cellphones, DSs, and virtual worlds.
The risk is not the feared “Internet sexual predator” lurking in these worlds. It is kids hurting kids.
Often gender issues in cyberbullying are misunderstood. Because Mean Girl cyberbullying is typically conducted by girls and is higher profile, bleeding into school social life more often, it is assumed that cyberbullying is a girl issue. No one understands how boys cyberbully and are cyberbullied.
A vast majority of boys use computer games, especially massively multiplayer online games (MMOGs) to cyberbully. It is the medium of choice for anyone who plays games online, though, girls and boys. They hack each other’s accounts, stealing their gold and loot, changing passwords, and tormenting their friends while posing as their victim. They discredit them in the game play, by losing and violating the rules, all in the guise of their victim. They verbally assault them in VOI (voice over Internet features, which are Internet phones using headsets and mikes), out them, and share their secrets in game. They exclude them from games and throw them out of channels. Their avatars are changed and targeted for mean-spirited attacks.
Gamebullying is a more serious problem than many appreciate for two major reasons. The object of most games is to torment others, steal things from them, and be aggressive toward other players. It’s how you win. So telling the cyberbullying apart from trolling (an in-game term used to define mean behavior in the game) isn’t easy. Often game moderators will misconstrue the cyberbullying, characterizing it as “trolling” instead. Other gamers are generally unsympathetic, seeing the victim as a “baby” who can’t hold his own.
The second reason is more serious. Many gamers live in their virtual worlds, have their best friends online, and don’t have as many offline social avenues as their nongaming counterparts. When they are attacked in their game world it can be devastating. A common cyberbullying ploy is to set up the victim using cyberbullying –by proxy false reports or provoking their doing something that will attract the attention of the game moderators and get them banned or suspended. It is not unusual to have avid gamers threaten suicide when suspended or banned from a favorite game.
IM (instant messaging) technologies vie with cellphones as the most common means of direct cyberbullying. (Social networks are the most common indirect weapon of choice.) They are quick and easy to send, and can be sent from any account when the password is compromised. They reach their mark quickly and have a powerful impact. They can appear to come from many sources, even if sent from one cyberbully. They are easy to forge and doctor as well, using any word processing program to cut and replace text and then print out as proof that the cyberbully said something they hadn’t. There isn’t a split second between wanting to hurt someone and sending a message designed to do that. There is no time to think and reconsider. There is no time to cool off if the attacks are anger-driven.
More than any of these, however, the biggest risk of IMbullying is the difficulty in tracking them back to the bully. Tracking and tracing requires that you have the IP address of the communicator. But IMs don’t have an easily captured IP address and they are rarely stored by the IM provider. They are also quickly deleted, which makes it even harder to track. (You can read more about tracking and tracing in When Seeing Should Not Be Believing—Evidence.) The only way to make sure you can trace an IM is to deploy a monitoring software that captures IP addresses of everything viewed on the computer. You can read more about these technology tools in Technology Tools.
Webcams are not used often in cyberbullying campaigns other than to broadcast how much the Mean Girls hate the target of their cyberbullying. They are also used to capture sexually explicit or otherwise high-risk webcam feeds and replay them or post them for others to view. Sometimes these feeds are used to blackmail the target, with threats that their parents will receive them next. (To learn more about “sexting” and how it can lead to cyberbullying and suicide, read about Jessie Logan and those who tormented her to death after her “sexting” image was made public.)
Cellphones, Including Texting, Cameras, Misappropriation, and Prank Calling
Cyberbullying—let us count the ways a cellphone can be used to torment victims. Students tell Parry it’s 64! They can use the phone feature and prank call their victims (while blocking their own number), leave mean messages, hack into victims' voicemails, call them after-hours to get them into trouble with their parents, and place calls to China when the victim leaves their phone unattended. They place calls from the victim’s phones to principals, the White House, and others in authority, hoping it will be traced back to the victim. They can use the camera and video features, snapping embarrassing pictures and shooting video of compromising situations. They can use the video feature to shoot videos of victims of an offline assault to further humiliate them online by posting them where everyone can see them on YouTube or MySpace. They can apply privacy settings to their target’s phone, locking them out.
They reprogram address books, inserting their own number for that of the victim’s best friend or boyfriend or girlfriend. This way, when they send a mean message it will appear to come from the trusted party, creating conflict and broken relationships. They replace screensavers with pornographic or embarrassing images. They copy their victim’s contact information and use it to harass their victim by harassing her friends. They copy pictures from their phone to change them or share them. They pull schedules and other private information stored in the phones. They can even delete or replace all stored music and ringtones and reprogram the phone itself, deleting or replacing all contact and other valuable information. (Some of these tricks work just as well with MP3s, iPods, and iTouch devices.) They may swap similar cellphones among two or more victims, as an elaborate practical joke.
The most powerful cellphone cyberbullying tool, texting, is used to send text-bombs (thousands of text messages sent from the Internet to a cellphone), harassing images and videos, or lewd and cruel messages designed to hurt the recipient. This could drive up their cellphone costs, result in their parents or school taking the cellphone away from them, or just cause tremendous hurt and generate fear. All serving the cyberbully’s purposes perfectly.
Textbullying is any kind of cyberbullying that uses texting tools and features. Textbullying involves some of the most creative methods in misusing technology to hurt someone else. Many of these tactics involve one student taking another's cellphone while it is unattended. Text messages are then sent to others from the victim’s phone with mean or harassing messages, to “set-up” the victim when their friends receive those texts. They may reprogram the phone, while in their possession, so that the textbully’s cellphone number replaces the victim’s boyfriend’s or girlfriend’s number and when they text the victim, it appears to come from their love interest. The textbully then breaks up with them, while posing as their boyfriend or girlfriend. Later the number is programmed back without the victim suspecting the complicated ruse.
When teens share nude or sexual images they take on their cellphone cameras and text to their boyfriend, girlfriend or random students they want to “impress” the images often work their way into the hands of others and are broadcast to everyone, teachers, students and parents alike. This is called “sexting.” Cellphones are not the only method of taking these images or sharing them, but are the most common method because they tie the image capture together with the means to send the image to the intended recipient, with the click of a key. To learn more about “sexting” and the tragic story of a beautiful teen who took her own life after being relentlessly harassed by her classmates for having shared a “sexting” image with a boy she was seeing, read "When Sexting Leads to Death."
And last, but not least, the cyberbullies can use old-fashioned prank calling to harass their targets.
Even more than classroom disruption, this is a very important reason to create a cellphone policy at your school. If students have one, they should leave it in their locker during the school day. Parents can reach students the old-fashioned way—through the school office. Check out some cellphone policy examples here.