Categorized | Bronx Neighborhoods

DIGITAL BRONX: Electronic aggression: Cyberbullying a hot topic

By Camilo Hannibal-Smith

Last month, the White House held a conference on bullying with particular attention paid to an increasingly prevalent form of harassment with sometimes violent consequences: cyberbullying. “Today, bullying doesn’t even end at the school bell,” said President Barak Obama toward the end of his speech. “It can follow our children from the hallways to their cell phones to their computer screens.”

Since about 2007, youth agencies and the U.S. government began following this trend. In 2008, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention cited research that showed 9 percent to 35 percent of students report being victims of electronic aggression. The CDC considers cyberbullying and other forms of so-called electronic violence an emerging adolescent health issue.

“Cyberbullying has become a hot topic for schools and for parents,” said Thomas Kapp, who heads the Bronx District Attorney’s office that handles Internet crimes.

Within the past year, the D.A.’s office has enlisted personnel to conduct workshops for students and parents addressing cyberbullying. Kapp said that before 2011, most of his technology related workshops dealt strictly with Internet safety, sexting and child pornography.

But local schools began calling the D.A.’s office requesting the cyberbullying workshops last year following media attention to suicides, violent attacks and harassment cases stemming from cyberbullying, said Kapp. According to officials the Bronx hasn’t had to prosecute any cases involving cyberbullying, yet. Kapp said he feels preventative measures, such as workshops and panels are necessary to educate students about the criminal aspects of online aggression and harassment. He said although his office tries to avoid punishing young people for youthful mistakes, cyberbullying is a problem that local law enforcement is trying to keep at bay.

According to Kapp, the Internet provides a cloak for bullies. “It’s easy for bullies to feel they can get away with it online,” said the 22-year veteran of the Bronx D.A.s office. “They feel very anonymous, more free to spew out harmful things.”  His office plans to continue the workshops, but no dates have been set.

Cheryl Hurst, a senior social worker with the Montefiore School Health Program, has talked about cyberbullying with students in a program called S.T.A.R., (an acronym for Strengthening Tween and Adolescent Relationships), which takes place at PS / MS 94 in Williamsbridge, a K-8 school. Her program operates on a rolling basis, meaning sometimes it’s presented as a workshop during class time, other times as an after-school session. She was working on establishing another group for early spring.

Hurst’s program isn’t specific to cyberbullying, but is teaching teens about healthy relationships. Her work has been featured on local newscasts as a model of cyberbullying education in the Bronx. Up to 30 students can participate in the program, which Hurst created in her five years working in a counseling program at the school.

Hurst has been counseling young school kids for almost a decade and sees a shift in the types of bullying that affect children, especially when considering the ubiquity of technology.  “When I started working in the schools not all the students had cell phones. And certainly they weren’t on Facebook,” she said. “They certainly weren’t using Myspace, but now I think that’s something that’s very present in their lives. I’ve seen a shift in that area for sure.”

Liz Lasky, a South Bronx middle school social worker and R.A.P.P (Relationship Abuse Prevention Program) coordinator, lectures frequently on cyberbullying and electronic aggression, and is finishing her doctoral dissertation about the topic. She says she’s seen mostly sixth and eighth graders come to her about aggressive or bullying text messages or emails. She’s even heard of young students who create web pages or Facebook sites disparaging other students.

What makes electronic, or cyberbullying different Lasky says is that it can quickly grow out of control. “Based on what I see, the biggest problem is that the duration of bullying is infinite,” she said. In some cyberbullying cases the negative information can go viral, and in a digital environment the words and taunts can last indefinitely.

There’s no way to tell exactly how this affects teens in the Bronx, but youth health workers like Hurst hear about it more and more. “I think they are now able to be more hurtful,’’ she said. “People feel that they can say things that they maybe would not say face to face with someone.”

She’s seen more examples in her program of conflicts stemming from exchanges that involve one child saying something bad about another one via instant messaging services like AIM (AOL Instant Messenger) or through blog-like posts on popular social networking sites like Facebook, which are both accessible on computers and smartphones. “It’s very public and I think that’s been a way of trying to provoke conflict and hurt feelings,” she said.  One popular tactic she says is the so-called de-friending of individuals on Facebook, a blow to childhood self-esteem, made worse if it’s announced as a public Facebook wall post.

According to the recently launched government website, “Cyberbullying peaks around the end of middle school and the beginning of high school,” which leaves many tweens at risk to online victimization. According to 2009 Census figures, 27.9 percent of the people in the Bronx are under 18 and could fall into this category.

Lasky, who previously worked as a social worker in a school in Soundview, says that educating young people, who often don’t even know what she means when she talks about cyberbullying, is how you curb the problem.

“I think we can get rid of [cyberbullying],” she said, “If we can teach kids how to be critical thinkers on the Internet.” The problem with bullying in a cyberworld is that the bully often can’t see the reaction on the face of the person being victimized. It’s about teaching children to be civil online, which in this rapidly changing technological world, can be a difficult concept to get across to a tween.

Yalitza Sabio, 13, an eighth grader at I.S. 339 in Claremont said she learned about cyberbullying during a social studies class that taught her about the potential dangers of Facebook, guarding your personal information from online predators and dealing with cyberbullies. She said so far she hasn’t experienced any forms of electronic aggression.

“Don’t add people you don’t know,” was one of the warnings about using Facebook that 8th grader, Soraidy Palacios recalled. The 14-year old who attends M.S. 343 in Mott Haven said she’s participated in counseling sessions where the topic of cyberbullying is often raised.

“They tell you people can tell you they want to kill you online,” she said, adding that counselors encouraged students to report and talk about such incidents.

Palacios said a friend of hers confessed to being threatened on Facebook by local gang members. “They ‘inboxed him’ and said they wanted to fight,” she said of the threatening note her friend received via Facebook’s private messaging system.

For some students already in high school, cyberbullying may not seem all that threatening. Maria Vuelto, 14, a ninth grader at Bronx Leadership Academy II in Fairmont – Claremont Village, for example, said she used to attend an after-school program at Woodycrest Center for Human Development. The issue of cyberbullies was raised, but Vuelto, who has more than 1,000 Facebook friends, didn’t see the point. “I stopped going,” she said with a shrug.

But cyberbullying is a big concern for law enforcement around the country. As recently as this week,  an Indiana teen was facing child pornography charges for threatening to publish nude photos of a classmate who refused to lend him a saxophone, according to press reports. In some states, such as Arkansas, lawmakers have proposed making cyberbullying a crime.

Lasky said this generation is experiencing a “social revolution.”  Young people’s social lives are immersed in a world of Facebook accounts and instant cell phone text messages that their parents are still figuring out, Lasky said.

For many parents, cyberbullying may be occurring under the radar.

Hurst agrees that for some parents, having their children indoors and engaged in an online community can give a sense of false security.

“Parents don’t always have an awareness of how dangerous it could be [online],” she said. “A lot of even simple text messaging has turned into another opportunity to bully, another opportunity to hurt someone else.”

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