See Emily Bazelon’s special report on the untold story of Phoebe Prince and her suicide.
A new study by the Kaiser Family Foundation reported last week that kids ages 8 to 18 now spend an average of seven and a half hours a day plugged in—online, on the phone, or in the thrall of TV or some other electronic device. The number seems impossibly high: Even the study’s authors were surprised. And yet it doesn’t sound off-base to some parents of teens.
So if it’s true that “If Your Kids Are Awake, They’re Probably Online,” as the New York Times headline put it, the big question is: What are they doing there? To some degree, alas, the answer is that they are doing harm or having harm done to them.
Polls on the prevalence of cyberbullying are disturbing. In a 2007 survey by the Pew Internet & American Life Project, almost one in three teens (32 percent) said she’d been harassed online. That means “receiving threatening messages; having their private emails or text messages forwarded without consent; having an embarrassing picture posted without permission; or having rumors spread about them online.” In a 2009 survey of about 1,200 middle schoolers, Sameer Hinduja and Justin Patchin, academics who direct the Cyberbullying Research Center, found that 22 percent of kids reported doing some kind of online bullying at least twice in the past month, and 29 percent reported having been bullied. And this isn’t just a problem for kids. Stalking on Facebook, flame wars on listservs—these things happen on university campuses and in the workplace, too.
The numbers suggest cyberbullying is a big problem. Yet Hinduja and Patchin also found that 34 percent of the middle schoolers they studied said they’d acted like regular bullies (spreading a rumor in person, mocking a classmate at school) and 44 percent reported being bullied in the time-dishonored, familiar way. This suggests that cyberbullying might get more than its share of attention. For sure it’s a hot topic. MTV has launched a prevention project and plans a 30-minute news special for February. Here’s the trailer for a new movie, urFRENZ, that’s got it all—sexting, Facebook stalking, and plenty of screaming. And check out this new anti-bullying PSA, complete with faux-nasty YouTube comments.
If online bullying is being treated as the new kid on the block, that’s probably not a bad thing. It’s a cousin of all the old forms of meanness, but it’s also causing trouble in new ways that we need to understand. Because cyberbullying is so easy, it may draw in kids who wouldn’t shout insults in the cafeteria or spread a slut rumor while hanging out with friends after school. Press a button, and your jeering text or e-mail—or nude photo—can go out to the whole school. You can do this while feeling distant from the cruelty. You can do it without thinking. You can do it without a clique of mean girls (or guys) to egg you on. All of this hits teenagers in a developmental weak spot, playing on their young brains’ tendency to act on impulse.
Cyberbullying is also serious because it’s associated with suicide, and not just in the case of Megan Meier, the 13-year-old girl took her own life after the mother of a former friend created a MySpace persona for a fictional 16-year-old boy and used it to send personal attacks. Then there is the specter of sexting. According to Pew, 4 percent of 12- to 17-year-olds say they’ve sent a nude or sexed-up picture; 15 percent said they’d received one. In an MTV-Associated Press poll of teens and young adults ages 14 to 24, the numbers were 10 percent and 17 percent. Sexting is building a sad collection of suicide victims, too.
The distress and the serious harm are making schools, legislators, and police scramble to figure out whether the best tactics for preventing online bullying and sexting are different from the ones used to push back against traditional bullies. Here at Slate, I’m launching a reporting project designed to get a handle on the problem and what those who work in the field are learning about how to stop it.
So I need your help. Slate readers were a fabulous source of stories last spring when I wrote a series about how the recession was affecting Americans. Now I want to hear from you about your experience, or someone else’s you know, of the many forms of cruelty in the online world. How big a problem is cyberbullying, really, and how is it a problem? In middle school, high school, college, and the workplace, what stories about meanness online, big or small, can you tell me: a gossipy YouTube video that ended in a suspension; a Facebook parody that caused tears or worse; a sext that damaged someone’s reputation; a stalker who tracked his obsession via social media? And what are schools and parents and the authorities doing about it?
Please send your stories and tips to firstname.lastname@example.org or to the new Facebook page for this project: E-mail will be treated as anonymous unless you say otherwise. I may write you back to ask questions. You can also write in with a question related to cyberbullying that you’d like advice about, and I’ll do my best to answer in consultation with Sameer Hinduja. And I’ll be traveling to schools, workplaces, whoever will have me to report out these stories, and writing up stories based on my reporting in a series on Slate. I’ll post news updates and other thoughts on the Facebook page and on my Twitter feed. Write to me, join in and post, help me dig deep into this toxic feature of our beloved Internet—and, I hope, into the solutions.