It’s been 11 years since author and poet Flora Cousins self-published her children’s book, “Don’t be a Bully! Be a Buddy!”
About 15,000 copies of the 32-page illustrated book have been sold. Since that time, the book’s timeless message has not changed, but how bullies prey on their victims has changed drastically.
“Technology has given people easier access to other people,” Cousins says. “It affords a person to say evil things and hide.”
She is talking about a cyberbully, someone who uses electronic communications — email, text messages, social media, chat rooms — to bully a person by sending repeated intimidating or threatening messages.
The messages can be for the victim’s eyes only or for anyone with Internet or electronic-communications access. The cyberbully can take ownership of each false or malicious post or, more often than not, remain anonymous.
Cyberbullying inflicted by adolescents onto their peers is getting the attention it deserves.
Cyberharassment and cyberstalking, terms used when the online abuse is committed by adults, is growing and is every bit as dangerous.
It is also illegal.
“It’s definitely a problem,” says Dee Murray, director of Rockford Memorial Hospital’s adult psychiatric unit. “We’ve certainly have seen our fair number of people who have experienced cyberbullying and tried suicide.”
Power and control
Working to Halt Online Abuse, or WHO@, bills itself as the oldest and largest all-volunteer online safety organization that has been helping adult victims of cyberstalking since 1997.
The York, Maine-based group provides up-to-date cyberstalking statistics and cumulative trends. WHO@ statistics are not based on the total number of cases handled during the year. Instead, data are derived from victims who fill out voluntary demographic information in questionnaires provided on the group’s website, haltabuse.org.
Almost 400 cases were used for the 2012 cyberstalking statistics. Among the victims 18 and older, 80 percent are female, 81 percent are white, 8 percent Hispanic, 6 percent Asian, 4 percent black and 1 percent Native American. The data also showed that 69 percent are single.
The cyberstalking victims were overwhelming female, but 49 percent of the harassers or cyberstalkers were found to be male, 31 percent female and 20 percent unknown. Also, nearly two-thirds, or 63 percent, of the victims said they had a previous relationship with the harasser.
In short, victims of cyberabuse are of both genders, adolescents to seniors, and of every race.
Cyberabusers, on the other hand, are nearly one and the same.
“They have low self-esteem,” Murray says. “They bully to feel good about themselves, They do this through power and control.”
Just as a schoolyard bully will seek to pick on another in front of a crowd, Murray said, a cyberbully can “degrade or bash others” in front of their 600 Facebook friends.
Unlike a schoolyard bully’s abuse, which may begin and end at school, cyberabuse can be 24-7.
Rockford police Lt. Pat Hoey routinely reads daily reports taken at the front desk of the Public Safety Building. He is reading a growing number of reports of cyberabuse.
“For adults, it’s usually over a custody issue or domestic related,” he says, as one parent will try to deem the other unfit to care for the kids.
And social media is not always an adult’s first choice by which to lash out malicious attacks.
“I don’t see it as prevalently online or Facebook. Facebook is mostly kids (teens and young adults), and that’s a lot of what our school officers deal with every day. One student will be Facebooking about somebody else and, before the school day is over, the whole school finds out.”
Young cyberabuse victims are instructed to inform their parents, school officials and, if necessary, the police.
But some remain silent for fear of making the situation worse. Some respond with cyberattacks of their own. Some resort to more extreme measures, such as taking their own or another’s life.
“Crisis resolution has decreased to if someone posts something bad about someone else, the way we usually find out about it is after a house gets shot up,” Hoey says. “A lot of these senseless drive-by shootings are a result of a negative post on Facebook.”
Still, it is not the electronic media that is the issue. It’s how people use it.
This summer, the Rockford Police Department launched a Facebook page to issue news releases and community alerts.
What Hoey, one of the page’s administrators, likes “about social media is, I can post something on our Facebook page, and then someone gets it and re-posts it, and their people repost it, so you get that huge impact,” says.
“It’s the same thing if something negative is said about someone. It goes to a co-worker, they send it to five co-workers, who send it to 10 more co-workers. The next thing you know, you come into work and all 500 employees know this thing was said about you.”
What the law says
The reports that are filed at the Police Department often make their way to Winnebago County State’s Attorney Joe Bruscato’s office, where formal charges are authorized.
Bruscato refers anecdotally to the growing number of cyberstalking and cyberharassment cases in the county. “Certainly, we do have cases, and we do prosecute them,” he says.
Bruscato also acknowledges the power of anonymity on the Internet.
“They feel they can go further with inappropriate, rude statements. They act uninhibited. It becomes very easy to hurl criticism without fear of saying it in person.”
Bruscato says state prosecutors can take cyberbullying seriously because the Legislature takes cyberabuse seriously.
Illinois has two types of electronic-harassment statutes:
- Telephone Harassment or Harassment through Electronic Communications, a Class B misdemeanor, is punishable by six months in jail and a fine up to $1,500.
- Cyberstalking, a Class 4 felony, is punishable by one to three years in prison. A second or subsequent conviction is a Class 3 felony, punishable by two to five years in prison.
Glenn G. Sparks, professor of communication at the Brian Lamb School of Communication at Purdue University, stressed that cyberattacks by any age group against any person are to be taken seriously.
“Do not sit back and say this will go away,” he said. “At the first sign of this kind of harassing, I would react aggressively. Get the school officials involved, the police, talk to an attorney and be prepared to follow through with legal actions.”
Author Flora Cousins says bullying is not solely a law enforcement issue.
“Bullying is everybody’s business. You always hear somebody say, ‘Somebody ought to do this or do that,’ but we are all that somebody.”
What to do if you’re a victim
If you are targeted by cyberbullies, it’s important to not respond to any messages or posts written about you, no matter how hurtful or untrue.
Responding will only make the situation worse. Provoking a reaction from you is exactly what the cyberbullies want, so don’t give them the satisfaction. It’s also very important that you don’t seek revenge on a cyberbully by becoming a cyberbully.
Again, it will only make the problem worse and could result in serious legal consequences for you. If you wouldn’t say it in person, don’t say it online. But there are steps you can take:
Stop communicating with the cyberbully. Block the email address and cell number, and delete them from social media contacts. Report their activities to their Internet service provider or to any websites they use to target you.
Save the evidence of cyberbullying. Keep abusive text messages or a screenshot of a webpage, for example, and then report them to police. If you don’t report incidents, the cyberbully will often become more aggressive.
Report threats of harm and inappropriate sexual messages to the police. In many cases, the cyberbully’s actions can be prosecuted by law.
Be relentless. Cyberbullying is rarely limited to one or two incidents. It’s far more likely to be a sustained attack on you over time. So, like the cyberbully, you may have to be relentless and keep reporting each bullying incident until it stops.