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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

"She Used to Be Pretty": Schoolyard Harassment Goes Online

The wounds cyberbullies cause can run deep.
By Kaley Noonan
Credit: Indigo Flores

She was a little big for her age, her face still chubby and prepubescent. She pulled me aside after the cyberbullying workshop I'd just given to a room full of twenty middle school girls. She looked as though she were hiding something. "Would you help me get my MySpace page shut down?" she asked.

We pulled it up. There she was, smiling in a picture. Underneath was the caption "The biggest whore in Winslow."

An ex-friend had stolen her password and hijacked her MySpace page, posting all kinds of malicious lies about her sexuality. I asked whether her mother had seen it. She told me she wasn't that close to her foster mother. Rather than say anything, she'd just been trying to live with it.

As someone who has worked with hundreds of middle school girls over the years, I am no longer surprised by the brutal cruelty and malicious creativity kids can display when they possess sophisticated tech skills -- and zero empathy.

Most of us know empathy is the ability to identify with and understand another person's feelings or difficulties, yet it is not a concept kids often hear about in middle school. When I asked whether anyone at the workshop knew the meaning of the word, not one girl raised her hand. Then I put up a magnified picture of Britney Spears on the screen. It was taken right after she shaved her head. There are dark circles under her eyes.

I handed out pieces of paper and asked the girls to write down the first thing that came to mind, as if they were sending an instant message to their best friend. I told them I wouldn't ask them to read it out loud, but I took a peek at some of the responses left crumpled up on their desks after the workshop. Here's what they left behind:

Ewww. She is so ugly now. She used to be pretty. but now look at her.

O.M.G. guess what britney spears looks like a man with that haircut. I wouldn't want to meet her in a dark Alley!

She is on drugs O M F G !!!! lol

OMG! She looks like a naked mole rat! She looks like crap! What was she thinking?

Nancy Willard, author of An Educator's Guide to Cyberbullying and Cyberthreats, wrote that when teens operate anonymously behind screen names, they perceive themselves as invisible and untouchable. And when they don't directly experience the damage online bullying does to their victims, teens feel little empathy.

Much has been written about the "mean girl," a type of female cyberbully who engages in relational aggression for entertainment and group admiration. She was defined in Rosalind Wiseman's best-selling book Queen Bees & Wannabes and later immortalized in the teen comedy movie Mean Girls.

A 2005 study by Brigham Young University suggests this behavior in girls starts when they are as young as three years old. Another report from the same year, by the Pew Internet & American Life Project, revealed that girls are now considered the "power users" of online communication tools.

This kind of power needs to be tempered by ethics training. You wouldn't give a sixteen-year-old girl a chain saw without warning her of its dangers, yet with a keystroke, many girls are capable of carving up names, reputations, even entire lives with cheerful indifference.

Most parents are oblivious to their teens' online communications, most schools still don't have specific cyberbullying policies in place, and only a handful of states are even in the process of considering legislature to prohibit online bullying. Right now, the best way to curb these behaviors is to start with the source: Show teens the consequences of their actions.

Many of the girls at the workshop seemed to get this concept by the end, and were busy in the last remaining minutes scrubbing their social-networking pages of any sensitive information that could be used against them. Two came up to me and thanked me for giving them strategies to deal with bullies. Still, as we were closing down, my staff noticed four girls hunched around a computer with a MySpace page open; it apparently belonged to a perceived rival for a boy's attention. "Let's write that she's ugly," one of them said, giggling, before she looked up to see us looking back at her.

Credit: Indigo Flores
Kaley Noonan is the program manager of Zoey's Room, an online education community for girls ages 10-14 designed to encourage their interest in science, technology, engineering, and math.

Comments (16)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Rhonda's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Kids have to be taught to be kind. They have to learn not to bully and to accept others in their diversity. Schools have got to be required to teach values, and not in a general way like with a word a day, but by expecting and modeling positive behavior. It needs to start in pre-K and go through the senior year. Meanwhile, popularity needs to be down rated as much as possible in schools. Awards should be given for communty service, improvement in academics (which would include special needs kids without discrimination) and appropriate behavior, including improved behavior in students who have had problems. Contests and competitions based on popularity should be eliminated.

Bullying should not be tolerated any more than guns and drugs are and the consequences for bullying should be harsh and include such things as cleaning bathrooms. There needs to be special consequences for bullying students with special needs, minorities or gay students. At the beginning of the year the parents should have to sign an agreement that if their child bullies they will be expected to do unpleasant work. If the parents disagree, they should have the opportunity to transfer their child to another school and provide transportation themselves.

When kids bully on the web they should be cut off and their parents notified--2 warnings and gone for a year. They should not be allowed to have pages at all without a signed and mailed note from their parents with a phone number that can be verified. If the child uses the web page inappropriately the parents must be notified. This is the same thing as live bullying and things like slam sheets. The only difference is that it has the potential to go much farther. If the bullying has anything to do with the school situation, the school should be notified and the student disciplined in the same way as she would for real life bullying.

Michael's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

The Massachusetts Agression Reduction Center at Bridgewater State College, is a wonderful resource for educators, parents, and anyone else concerned about this issue.

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

It doesn't just happen on the Internet, and sometimes the girls don't hide. When my daughter was in sixth grade a friend called her and started asking her leading questions about another girl at school. (The other girl was making the nasty statements about the girl, and my daughter was just saying "um, yeah, I guess." Little did my daughter know, but the girl they were talking about and several others were listening(they were chained together in conference calls.)

When she got to school the next day, she was encircled by a gang of angry peers. They yelled and screamed and intimidated her. Needless to say, she didn't know what to do or think.

It took several weeks for us to figure out what was going on. When I went to the school, their solution was peer counseling, which sounded like a good idea to me. My daughter refused to go because the peer counselors were the girls involved! The school refused to get involved and would not hold a meeting for the girls to work things out. I pulled her out of school, got her counseling and homeschooled her for a year. When she returned for 8th grade things were somewhat better, because my daughter had learned some coping skills. However, the girls were still intimidating to her.

This was a nightmare for her, and eight years later she is still feeling the scars from that experience.

anonymous -- for the protection of many's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

My daughter and several others were victims. Thank goodness she left up a particularly offensive I.M. and i cut and pasted it in to a document and saved it. Tracked down the young man and what IP he had been using. His school took action. Let's just leave it at that. It took me awhile to approach and explain emotional abuse not only to her, but to several others that he and some of his... ahhhmm.. minions had inflicted. Haven't heard a peep since. I never ever told our daughter how I knew. I didn't want to feel like her privacy had been breeched. It is a thin thin line. If she ever figured it out, she never mentioned it.

We all must be vigilant, and NON REACTIVE, especially women in leadership roles. You certainly can not make a victim feel any worse. We must also teach HOW to protect ourselves without isolating ourselves. Learning how to track down an IP address is one thing I taught mine. Some schools - esp private and post HS institutions will have a student removed for putting them in the path by using such behavior over the network they own.

Keep Strong! Just~A~Mom

Sandy's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

My reaction to this article and your comment about this being the job of schools is to ask -- what about the parents? More and more I see requests for schoold to take on jobs that used to be reserved for parents. I agree that modeling good behavior to students should be required of everyone in a position to influence children -- including their parents. But asking schools to take on teaching morals and ethics, unless you are talking about a private school which accurately reflects the morals and ethics of the parents, is opening a pretty big can of worms.

Nancy Willard's picture
Anonymous (not verified)


Nice job on this article. I really like your focus on helping young people recognize the consequences of their actions.

Cyberbullying is an increasingly difficult concern for schools to address. There will need to be a comprehensive approach to addressing this concern - invloving educators, parents, and students. One of the biggest challenges is balancing student free speech rights and the need for schools to respond to situations that are causing or threatening to cause significant disruptions at school or are resulting in the creating an school environment that is so hostile that the targeted student no longer feels safe at school.

I already address this in my book, Cyberbullying and Cyberthreats, but am currently working on an article that will even more clearly outline the legal dimensions and provide guidance on policies. This will soon be on my cyberbullying site http://cyberbully.org.

Nancy Willard, Center for Safe and Responsible Internet Use

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