It's time to talk about cyber bullying
Seventy-one percent of teens consider rumor-spreading on cell phones and social networking sites to be a serious problem, according to a 2007 national survey conducted by Teen Research Unlimited.
This was among the topics discussed by more than 400 students, parents and others in a digital abuse forum "Hit me on my cell: it's time to talk," at Saxe Middle School in New Canaan last Thursday evening.
Hosted by former NBC Nightly News weekend anchor John Seigenthaler, the event's aim was to educate Fairfield County families about cyber-bullying -- a digital form of harassment that Seigenthaler said has run rampant nationwide.
Weston Police Sgt. Matt Brodacki said technology has exacerbated the number and array of harassment incidents suffered by middle school and high school students across the state. The Internet and social networking Web sites such as Facebook, along with cameras, video cameras and cell phones, enable children to maintain constant contact with each other during every hour of the day, he said.
Messages, photos and videos that teens and younger children are sharing every day can literally spread across the world in an instant, he said.
"This stuff does happen a lot in Connecticut ... especially in Fairfield County," Brodacki said.
Cyber-bullying refers to any type of harassing activity carried out on digital technologies such as cell phones and computers.
"Sexting," a term for the electronic exchange of sexually explicit text, images or videos, is one form of cyber-bullying that has lead to at least two teen suicides in the United States.
"When it comes to this and this," NCPD Sgt. Carol Ogrinc said, clutching her cell phone in one hand and pointed at her desktop computer with the other, "kids are in their own world. It's their world; they own it and parents are locked out."
Ogrinc, the NCPD youth officer and a mother of two teen sons, recommends parents tap into that world by keeping an open line of communication with their children. She suggests the dinner table or long car rides as settings when children are most apt to discuss goings on with friends and at school.
Ogrinc recommends parents avoid prying and realize that "you're not going to know what your child is doing all the time."
"If a middle school girl has a crush on a boy, this is how they one-up the other girls--[by sending him] a picture of her breasts," Ogrinc said, adding, "That's the way kids fool around these days. We're appalled, but for them, they're just having fun."
In the last year, the NCPD received seven complaints of juvenile cyber bullying. These incidents involved youths ages 12 to 15. According to Ogrinc, one incident involved threats to the life of a school teacher that were recorded on a YouTube video voiceover by a 12-year-old male who later said that the video was a prank and he liked the teacher. Another involved a 13-year-old female and a 14-year-old male who exchanged nude photos of themselves via text message, Ogrinc said.
"In the last year, the sexting issue has developed and increased," Ogrinc said, adding, "Three or four years ago, sexting was not an issue."
The NCPD received its first incident report of juvenile sexting in 2008, Ogrinc said.
"This is the problem we've been seeing: a 15-year-old girl sends a boy in school a nude photo of herself in a text message," Ogrinc explained. "He's technically in possession of child pornography and she is technically distributing child pornography, even though [the photo is of] herself. She's distributing and he's possessing. Is this how we want to handle these cases? No. But these are the laws."
Currently in Connecticut, a juvenile is defined as any youth age 15 and younger, Ogrinc said. In January, the state may pass a bill that raises this age bracket to include 16-year-olds.
"The kids are getting these sexts everyday," said Kari Pesavento, director of Children's Connection, a Human Services Council program that educates teens about "sexting" and other forms of cyber-bullying. "They just don't get it. They're getting these messages every day, they're forwarding them, they're saving them, and they're not realizing [that] if they have three or more of these images on their phones, it's a felony."
Teens and tweens who send "sexts," she said, often do not realize how quickly those messages can spread around the school, community and beyond with the ease of the internet and social networking Web sites like Facebook.
"It's small towns [like New Canaan] where it happens the most and it's talked about the least," Pesavento said.
Debbie Fryer, coordinator of PeaceWorks, a Domestic Violence Crisis Center program that educates pre-K to twelfth grade youths across the county about how to develop healthy relationships, says that many youngsters cannot discern a healthy relationship from an abusive one.
"In every school we go into, there are students who are [being cyber-bullied into] sexting," she said.
According to Ogrinc, another common teen harassment scenario is often triggered after the breakup of a young couple.
"If a girl breaks up with a guy and he's not letting go, he can text and text and text her or call her or show up somewhere he knows she will be--and that's harassment."
According to PeaceWorks Director Susan Delaney, it's all about power and control.
"If someone has pictures of you that you don't want spread around, it's really easy for them to say...try and break up with me and you're going to see this picture around the world."
The government officials, law enforcers, school representatives, parents and teens who spoke from the stage or from the audience last Thursday night agreed on the problems, but together, they struggled to pin point a solution comprised of much more than hope and guess work.
According to New Canaan High School Principal Tony Pavia, policing teens, by enforcement agents or by parents, is a deterrent that is only as affective as its reach. It is nearly impossible, he said, to monitor a teen's activity every moment of every day.
Nothing is more effective in curbing undesirable behaviors like cyber-bullying, Pavia said, than creating a community-wide social stigma attached to that very behavior.
"I really believe we have to work hard to create the consensus and build the consensus within [teen] communities...that this is just not acceptable," he said, adding, "Let's face it--one of the roles of the teenager is to push limits on things, and I would say [that] today they have more ability to push limits on things.... Now there's this fast area of cyber-space, they have their own room, there's multiple media [outlets] in the house.... Ultimately what it comes down to is that teenagers are alone certain hours of the day and they have to make decisions alone."