Pa. kids say cyberbullying is on the rise

May 10, 2009 6:23:02 AM PDT
Someone spread rumors about Kyle Dean online, but he didn't care. "The insults were lame," said the ninth grader at Trinity High School in Washington, Pa., about 20 miles southwest of Pittsburgh.

But that's not always the reaction of students when cyberbullying happens - nor does it have to be. Washington High School senior Ashlie Brice said a friend of hers was threatened online.

"They called her foul names," Brice said.

Her friend told her mom and they told the cyberbully to stop or they would contact the authorities. That stopped it for a while, Brice said.

A group of high school students said recently that cyberbullying is on the rise in their schools, just as it is nationally. Cyberbullying is loosely defined as using computers or cell phones to harass or bully another. It can happen by cell phone text messages, on social networking sites and even on online games that allow chatting.

"It's growing and it's going to continue to grow," said Rich Horner, the police superintendent for North Franklin Township in Washington County, on the southwest side of Washington. "A lot of this stuff is kids being kids. There's always been bullying. Now, they have more avenues to do it."

It's enough of a problem that the state attorney general's office created a video about cyberbullying and will launch it in May, said Diana Woodside, assistant director of education and outreach.

Cyberbullying can have lifelong, devastating psychological consequences, she said.

"It's hard because it's constant," Woodside said, adding that students can't escape it by going home. Home, in fact, is where cyberbullying often happens.

In a survey of 45,000 children in middle school, 85 percent said they have been cyberbullied at least once, said Parry Aftab, executive director of the Internet safety group, based in Irvington, N.Y., about 20 miles northeast of New York. Just 5 percent admitted it at the high school level, she said.

"However, those students generally hide it from their parents," she said. "They are concerned that their parents will turn off the Internet."

Cyberbullying is happening far more than anyone knows, said Aftab, whose organization also runs the Web site Experts say that kids are at a much greater risk of being cyberbullied than being approached by a sexual predator online.

At least 20 children have committed suicide in the United States because of cyberbullying, including three from one cyberbullying incident in Kentucky, Aftab said.

"It's growing because of the technology," she said. "It used to be that you could only bully if you were in someone's presence. Now, it's portable."

Social networking sites started to take off in 2005 and more kids have access to cell phones than ever, she said.

"It's a collision of what kids were already doing and the technology available," she said.

Kids should not respond, but block the person who is cyberbullying them and tell a trusted adult about what is happening, Aftab said.

"Without adults knowing, they don't know how at risk you are," she said.

Parents should know that if their child and friend get into a fight, it's likely to turn to the Internet. It can range from cyberbullying to changing each other's passwords, she said.

"Kids are just as likely to be a cyberbully as a target," she said.

That's why parents should be open-minded and talk to their kids about respecting others.

"Be cognizant of how much this hurts," she said. "It affects everything they do."

Schools are sometimes stuck in a tough spot because a good amount of cyberbullying doesn't happen on school property, said Greg Taranto, assistant to the superintendent of the Canon McMillan School District in Canonsburg, about 15 miles southwest of Pittsburgh.

"Kids in our school think things on MySpace can't get them in trouble in school," said Trinity ninth grader Sierra Kelley.

Schools can't necessarily discipline for something that happens outside of school, but they can intervene and talk to students about it, Taranto said.

"When they find out the schools know, that helps resolve the situation," he said.

Sam Wonchek, director of security at Charleroi Area School District in Charleroi, about 20 miles south of Pittsburgh, said it's a misdemeanor to harass someone with an electronic device.

If it happens outside of school, he doesn't cite the person. He will tell parents to call police, who are becoming very familiar with cyberbullying, he said.

If it happens on school property, the school district will prosecute.

Wonchek, and other school officials, said it's most prevalent in fifth through ninth grades. He said it's especially bad among middle school girls.

"A lot of the stuff is mean and nasty," he said.

They think they can do it anonymously, he said, but they cannot.

"Law enforcement can trace it back to your computer," he said. "If you have three computers in your house, they can tell you which one the message came from."

Part of the problem is that kids have been given all this technology but haven't been given guidelines and rules about appropriate use, Taranto said. Parents and schools both need to teach kids about the right and wrong ways to use technology, he said.

Sometimes, stepping away from the computer or a social networking site can be good if a child has problems with cyberbullying, Taranto said. Some parents say that's not fair to their child, but he urged them to reconsider.

"If your child keeps getting beat up at the same playground, are you going to keep letting them go there?" he said. "No. It's the same with cyberspace."

Too often, children know more about the Internet than their parents, he said.

"If you're going to let your child have a (social networking) page, you should know how to navigate one," he said.

John Wybranowski, a police detective for North Strabane Township, Washington County, which includes Canonsburg, said one goal is to get kids to consider what is in the messages they send.

"Once you hit the send button, it doesn't come back," he said.

Often it's best for parents to deal with other parents to resolve the problems, he said.

"It doesn't always have to be handled by the police," Wybranowski said.

Todd Foreman, a Washington police officer who works with the Washington School District, said he hasn't seen an increase in official cyberbullying reports. He's most concerned about the unreported incidents of cyberbullying.

Parents need to monitor social networking sites, Internet activity and cell phone use of their children, he said. They also need to be aware of what's being said when children communicate through video game consoles, he said.

"Parents have the ability to take action every day within their home to protect children from cyberbullying," he said.


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