George Lucas Educational Foundation

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

The wounds cyberbullies cause can run deep.
By Kaley Noonan
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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 comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Parents need to take the lead in knowing what their child is doing. Hiding behind a screen name and saying anything that comes to mind about anyone is morally and ethically wrong. As an educator I had to face a parent regarding what her daughter was writing online. The parent told me her daughter would never do anything like that. I began to mention very personal things about the woman's own family and she was in disbelef. Finally, I pulled out an envelope with some pages from her daughter's website and began reading and showing her. Defending her daughter still took place despite the proof of what she had written. Parents really do need to be responsible for their children and what they are doing. More and more parental responsbilities are being relegated to the schools. It is time for parents to take responsibility for their children!

Kathy's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

My daughter, now 29, was the victim of bullying behavior and it still brings tears to her eyes when we discuss this issue. She was very small in early elementary and that's when the bullying started by a girl from an emotionally abusive home. This is not a new issue, but tremendously facilitated by technology. Parents MUST be educated about the effect of cyberbullying, and must monitor use. We hope to start programs on Internet Safety at our PTO's this year.

Many girls are snarky and petty as adolescents and teachers are being irresponsible if they don't intercede and address bullying behavior in their classrooms. I know that boys at times participate in this behavior, and it can be devastating to boys as well. It just seems to be more prevalent with girls.

B. Post's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I am a mom and a middle school teacher. I struggle at home to teach my own boys to be kind and also try to be a role model for my kids at school. Personal responibility is a difficult thing to teach. It's a constant struggle, but one that will be well worth it in the long run. I am always looking for new information to take to school and will definitely be ordering some new books before the start of the new school year!

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Even before cyberbullies were out, I was bullied when I moved to a new state and school after my father died. I was in 6th grade, and felt totally rejected. I had no friends, and my lack of self-esteem didn't allow me to seek any out. This led to later ideas of suicide or some kind of hurtful behavior because of how bad I felt about myself, and how unaccepted I was.

Jennie's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I went to a workshop on girl bullies and they refer to it as relational aggression. With girls it is almost harder to address because they are covert in their bullying where boys are overt. What was interesting about the workshop is that they discussed "queen bees" and how to deal with them. The leader stressed the importance of teaching girls how to teach others to treat them the way they want to be treated. Taking out the bully usually results in a second power rising up and being worse than the original. I think this is an important concept to stress.

Bruce --  New Jersey's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Yes, its true. Middle school children can be mean. I believe they always have been.

Pamela's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I'm the mom of 17 yr old and 13 yr old girls. They have both been the victim of cyber-bullies. The 13 yr old was bullied by some friends who ganged up on her. We were able to solve this by pulling together the kids and the parents to talk it through. My 17 yr old on the other hand is constantly "bullied" by "un-known" people who follow her blog etc. I am in the process of writing a research paper on cyber-bullies. I am posing the following question: is cyber-bullying more harmful to teens when the bully is anonymous? Any thoughts on this?


beth's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

We need to teach our children not to take offense and not to respond on such abuses. Once in childhood I was also very much hurt and wasted my emotions, but became older, I realized what it was a real trifle.

Catherine's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

That can be approached from both sides, neither one less scarier than the other.

If they know the person, they face the fear of possibly running into them and continuing the behavior in person.

If they don't know the person, then they face the fear of the unknown. It could even be a 'friend'. But they just don't know.

Either way, it needs to be stopped. I would do as the other parent and trace the URL or IP address if you can get them. Then I would pay that person's parents/school a visit with the evidence.

I do not understand bullies. I've encountered them myself as a child and I remember fighting back. Not the same now.

Good luck on your paper!

G. Andersen's picture

Texting is another source of bullying that needs to be discussed. Just a suggestion, but kids seem to think once they delete their text or post something online, that there isn't a way to track it back to them. Education is an important part of stopping this action also.

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