Considered a more youth-oriented cyber crime, harassment via the Internet (also known as cyberbullying) is taking middle and high schools by storm. Much publicized cases – some of which resulted in the suicide of the victim – show that this kind of virtual harassment is every bit as harmful and damaging as the old-fashioned bullying a parent or educator might associate with hallway or school bus threats. While students are frequently warned to contact a teacher or other person in authority if in-school bullying occurs, youngsters are often at a loss about whom to talk to when the offenses occur after school and in cyberspace.
As outlined by the National Cyber Security Alliance(1), the definition of harassment via the ‘Net outlines abusive behavior that relies on offensive postings, direct messages and third-party emails to accomplish its goal. This form of electronic harassment includes the creation of websites with the express intent of posting compromising or doctored photos and the setup of Facebook groups that have the stated goal of discussing the shortcomings of a person, divulging personal information or making fun of the individual. In many cases it also can involve the use of other social networking sites, such as Twitter or MySpace, to disseminate offensive postings about someone.
The veritable explosion of this phenomenon makes sense, especially when considering that teens have increased access to online venues. Laws dealing with cybercrime – harassment in particular – are few and far between; enforcement is hampered by differing interpretations of free speech laws. Enforcement is made easier if cyber harassment becomes cyber stalking, which actually involves the issuing of threats to the target’s physical safety.
Protecting a Teen or Other Internet User against Online Harassment
Even though the attacks are of a virtual nature, the rules of engagement when dealing with a real-life bully still apply.
- Pushing back, or responding online in kind, only serves to make the harassment worse. Consider that part of the bully’s reason for engaging in the cyber harassment in the first place is the rise he or she wants to get out of the victim. Since these online bullies frequently have an audience, this factor is actually heightened. Ignoring the taunts and changing an email account or social networking account may be better solutions than engaging the harasser;
- Teens must open up to parents about unwanted online attention, whether it comes in the form of an online friend who is getting too personal or classmates who are picking on the youngster. Parents can be proactive by limiting the online activities of their teens and carefully monitoring Internet usage;
- Being a cyber crime, harassment should be reported to the authorities. Whether a child falls victim to an online predator or to a group of vindictive classmates, the United States Computer Emergency Readiness Team(2) advises that the local police department is an excellent first contact when taking legal action against the harassment.