Teens and Cyberabuse

Posted Feb. 15, 2009, at 5:51 p.m.

It’s an old story for many parents and teachers and practically all teenagers, but it’s getting worse: cyberabuse, the harmful use of high-tech communications. It’s a dark side of the Internet and cell phones that have transformed most of our lives.

One-third of all teenagers who use the Internet say they have been targets of annoying and sometimes menacing online or cell phone approaches. And the abuses are going on at the same rate here in central and Down East Maine, according to education specialists who deal with the matter every day.

Cyberbullying includes sending aggressive or intrusive messages or sexy pictures, spreading rumors, invading privacy, and harassment by continual repetition. Unlike the ordinary bullying that always has been commonplace on school playgrounds, cyberbullying is often anonymous. That frees the perpetrator from inhibition and opens the way to obscenity, pornography and cruelty, just as anonymous bloggers and Internet commentators often abandon civility and decency. It is also quick and easy: Just type, copy, paste and send. Text messaging is another fast and easy method of communicating — and harassing or bullying.

The impact on a young victim can range from anxiety, depression and loss of self-esteem to an academic slump, dropping out of school and even thoughts of suicide. The case of Megan Meier, the Missouri teenager who committed suicide after a deliberate taunting on MySpace, is widely known as an extreme example.

A new 278-page report, “Enhancing Child Safety and Online Technologies,” provides a comprehensive national view of the national problem. Among its conclusions: “Bullying and harassment, most often by peers, are the most frequent threats that minors face, both online and offline.”

Right here in our part of Maine, Angel Matson and Kelli Mitchell know firsthand about the prevalence and danger of cyberbullying and harassment. They work for social service agencies, visiting schools and meeting with students, teachers and parents to hear their stories and suggest how to cope.

Ms. Matson is a community outreach educator at Penquis Community Outreach Program in Bangor. As she visits schools throughout Penobscot and Piscataquis counties, she stresses the need for open communication within families. She says a computer should be kept in a living room or family room and not in the bedroom, where the teenager would deal in solitude with an improper or disturbing message.

Ms. Mitchell, an education coordinator at Downeast Sexual Assault Services in Ellsworth, advises students on her visits throughout Hancock County not to handle a disturbing communication alone but talk it over with a parent or some other adult — not a fellow student, who might make things worse.

Both specialists have found that the perpetrators often think they are merely joking or flirting and don’t realize the harm they are doing. Some have come forward to a teacher, after a class discussion, acknowledging and apologizing.

The kids know much more than most adults about high-tech communications. But they need help and guidance in avoiding abuses, either as victims or abusers.

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