The stories are heartbreaking for any parent.
Jeff Johnston of Trafalgar, Florida was not just another teenager. He was the kind of kid who grew his hair long so that he could donate it to "Locks of Love," a charity that gave hairpieces to cancer patients. He was a straight A student in grade seven. He attended the same school where his mother taught science and was outgoing and confident, with a circle of good friends. Then, "out of the blue" (in Jeff's words) a fellow student – by all accounts with no provocation at all - began an online campaign to smear Jeff. Jeff was ostracized by friends soon after. After enduring three years of relentless online bullying with no one able to stop it, Jeff hung himself in his bedroom closet one night. He left behind a note that said simply, "I decided to commit suicide because my life is too hard."
Megan Meier was a Missouri 13 year old who believed that her new MySpace friend really was a boy who liked her. The "boy" was actually a neighbour's mother who suddenly "turned" on Megan then incited a very public taunting of her. "He" told Megan (in front of all her MySpace friends) "the world would be better off without you." As her mother was deciding what to do about her distraught daughter, Megan went upstairs to her bedroom and hung herself. The grade eight student died a day later. Lori Drew, the neighbourhood mother, is set to be tried on several charges in a California court where MySpace's servers are held. In the wake of the case, Missouri governor Matt Blunt is pushing a bill that makes cyber harassment a criminal offence.
Those have been the dramatic headline-grabbing stories but there are thousands more that have not gotten near as much attention. In fact, according to a study done at the University of Toronto less than 50 percent of cyber bullying is reported. The U of T survey also showed that one in four Toronto school students had been bullied online. In addition, one in five said they had bullied others online. In distressingly similar findings, a survey by the Quebec English School Boards Association reported that "17 percent [of teenaged internet users surveyed] say they pretended to be someone else so 'I can act mean to people and not get into trouble.'"
In the U of T study, those who confessed to bullying were motivated by the victim's appearance or race while a disturbing 36 percent said they had no motive. The findings of a 2005 study had already shown that over one in four bullying incidents were happening over the web and a staggering 70 percent of sexual harassment incidents had happened over the Internet. As Ontario Provincial Police Const. Marc Depatie says, "Cyberbullying is becoming a more prominent problem not only in the education system but the community at large."
There can be little doubt at this point that there really is such a thing as cyberbullying. Cyberbullying is part of a culture of bullying that we have allowed to fester too long. A University of Guelph psychology department survey of local schools reported that an average of 50 percent of kids reported being bullied in the past month. Further, a staggering 45 percent don't feel safe when they go to school in the morning.
Estimates by teachers in the same survey were as follows:
Bullying of any kind is a sickness our culture can do without. Just ask Sandrai Gillard of Ajax, Ontario, whose 13 year old son hanged himself after being bullied for being gay, or ask the parents of Dawn-Marie Wesley, the 14 year old who killed herself in her BC home out of fear of being beaten up or ask Michael Neuts, whose son Myles died in a Chatham, Ontario grade school bullying incident gone awry in 1998.
Governments are responding to the threat of cyberbullying. Last year, Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty announced legislation that added cyberbullying to the list of offenses that could get students suspended or expelled from an Ontario school. Whether it's done in the schoolyard or online, McGuinty said, "bullying is bullying." This was the first time that school bullying in any form was dealt with by the legislature.
A report from The Quebec English School Boards Association (QESBA) has resulted in the creation in that province of "curriculum content to help teachers educate students on cyber risks and to develop strategies to help solve problems that students encounter." The program also proposes to provide "education tools for parents to increase their ability to respond to cyber problems that arise with their children."
In the meantime, the state of Florida has passed a bill in response to the Jeff Johnston case. It puts more onus on schools and school districts to set up procedures to follow up on complaints of bullying and referring incidents to proper authorities. The measure also bolsters penalties for students both on and off campus.