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Adolescent Bullies Move to Cyberspace, Researchers Find

RELEASED: March 14, 2006

Dr. Justin Patchin
Dr. Justin Patchin
Dr. Sameer Hinduja
Dr. Sameer Hinduja

EAU CLAIRE — An alarming number of middle and high school students report being harassed, bullied and threatened via the Internet and other electronic mediums, says a University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire assistant professor of criminal justice who has been researching cyberbullying for several years.

"Technology is allowing kids to take harassment and bullying to another level," said Dr. Justin Patchin, whose research on cyberbullying is among the first of its kind. "It differs from traditional bullying because victims can't get away from it. In the past, if you were being bullied or harassed at school, you could go home and get away from it. Now the bully can come into the kid's home and even into their bedroom. There is no escaping it."

In two Web-based surveys, more than one-third of the adolescent respondents reported being the victims of cyberbullying, said Patchin, who conducted the surveys with Dr. Sameer Hinduja, an assistant professor in the department of criminology and criminal justice at Florida Atlantic University. Most respondents reported being bullied in chat rooms, text messages and e-mail, Patchin said.

"As an adult, our reaction might be to delete or ignore harassing messages," Patchin said. "But to an adolescent, reputation is everything. It's difficult enough when someone spreads a rumor by word-of-mouth. Now, with a single key stroke, the whole school can get a message. It's devastating to someone that age because social acceptance is critical to their self-esteem."

Patchin and Hinduja define cyberbullying as willful and repeated harm inflicted through the medium of electronic text. Computers with Internet access and cellular phones are the primary ways through which the bullying occurs, Patchin said, adding that about half the victims reported being harassed in some way while in a chat room.

"An offender can send hurtful messages to a victim, to another person or they can make it available to anyone who's using the Internet," Patchin said. "In chat rooms, people can gang up on someone. Or they can put a Web site up using unflattering pictures or write nasty things. The psychological and emotional ramifications can be serious."

And unlike traditional schoolyard bullying, cyberbullies can harass a victim without the victim knowing their identity, Patchin said. Not knowing who the tormenter is can make the bullying even more painful, particularly to an already insecure adolescent, he said.

The anonymity also allows kids who may not have the physical stature or social confidence to bully someone in person to do so via cyberspace, he said, noting that computer proficiency gives bullies all the power they need to intimidate. "Kids are saying things that they'd never say to someone face to face," he said.

Despite the growing number of victims, few adolescents are telling their parents or other adults about the abuse, Patchin said. The research found that more than 40 percent of the youths who reported being bullied did not tell anyone about it, he said.

"We probably don't know the extent of the problem because kids are afraid to talk about it," Patchin said. "Some fear they'll be blamed for the behaviors and others fear they won't be able to use their computers or their cell phones if their parents find out about it."

Patchin and Hinduja's research began in 2003 with a pilot survey they posted on a Web site popular with teens. They were stunned when hundreds of adolescents responded, with many sharing painful details about their experiences with cyberbullying, Patchin said.

"These kids aren't telling their parents about what's happening to them online but they shared many details with an anonymous researcher," Patchin said. "That tells me they are upset by it and they do want to talk about it."

Victims often don't know where to go for help when cyberbullying occurs, Patchin said. Harassing messages often originate from computers outside of schools so educators may feel there is little they can do, he said. And while law enforcement becomes involved when serious threats are received, they can't respond to all harassing messages, he said.

"No one really wants to take responsibility," Patchin said. "And parents often don't know what to do. Many adolescents are savvier with technology than their parents so their parents aren't sure what their kids are doing online. And many kids have computers in their bedrooms, making it hard for parents to monitor online activity."

In an effort to help parents and educators better understand and address cyberbullying, Patchin and Hinduja have created the "Cyberbullying Prevention and Response Seminar for Parents and School Personnel." The all-day program is designed to help parents and school officials better understand cyberbullying, the technology being used by offenders and strategies for addressing the online abuse. The first seminar will be held April 8 in Florida. Patchin said he hopes to offer a similar seminar in Wisconsin in the fall.

Patchin and Hinduja also are sharing their findings through journal articles and media interviews. Their article, "Bullies Move Beyond the Schoolyard: A Preliminary Look at Cyberbullying," is included this month in the journal Youth Violence and Juvenile Justice.

It took decades for educators, parents and the public to take traditional bullying seriously and to understand that it can create lifelong problems for victims, Patchin said, noting that most of the school shootings of recent years have been carried out by victims of bullying.

"We don't yet know the long-term consequences of cyberbullying, but I don't think it's too big of a leap to think they will be similar to that of traditional bullying," Patchin said. "Victims are frustrated, sad and angry. And the victims of cyberbullying are being pushed 24 hours a day, not just during school hours."

Patchin and Hinduja also have created a Web site about cyberbullying.

-30-

JB

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