Megan Meier and the Challenge of Virtual Bullying

This article in the Sunday New York Times, already available online and appearing for some reason in the Sunday Styles section, takes a close look at the case of Megan Meier, the 13-year-old girl who committed suicide last year after receiving insulting messages on MySpace (background and commentary here), and the emerging challenge of cyberbullying. The article notes that

controlling the Web can be almost impossible, experts on children say, and most adolescents are simply not mature enough to handle the virtual world and its anonymous attacks. For instance, “Adolescents take what is said online as the literal truth,” said Justin Patchin, assistant professor of criminal justice at the University of Wisconsin, Eau Claire, who studies cyberbullying.

And, as in the Megan Meier case, the victim of cyberbullying is often isolated, yet never free from attack. “The target sees this entire cyberuniverse where everybody is against them, and no one will come to their defense,” said Dr. Walter Roberts, professor of counselor education at Minnesota State University, Mankato. “The harassment is not limited to the portion of the day when the kids are in school. The targeted kids have no escape.”

What I found interesting in this piece were not the quotes from the academics but rather the ones from the kids. “Once you’re on MySpace, you’re trapped,” said 12-year-old Jake Dobson, who attends the same school Megan did. “You spend all your time online just trying to keep the negative stuff about you from spreading.” Dobson later admits he’s “not above an instant message making fun of someone, even if he knows that the same thing could happen to him,” writer Christopher Maag reports. “It’s like I can’t even do anything because everybody is sitting there with a cellphone just waiting for me to mess up,” Dobson said.

Or consider this detail: Girls practice text messaging with their eyes closed, a girl named Sarah told Maag; they’ve become “adept at pressing buttons under their desks while keeping their focus on the teacher,” Maag writes. (When I read that I was like, OMG, that’s a BFD!)

To me the problem of cyberbullying is an old one (adolescents can be nasty toward each other, and the consequences can be severe) dressed up in new (fashionable?) clothes. The tools that today’s parents need to equip their children with in order to combat the problem–self-confidence, the ability to turn the other cheek and talk to an adult if the problem persists–remain the same as ever. But the landscape has undeniably changed, and the new terrain clearly presents problems of its own. This article doesn’t venture into a discussion of what to do about it, but clearly today’s parents and legislators are exploring ways to meet this new challenge. I hope the answer they find is time-tested rather than trendy.

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