Cyberbullying becoming a ‘cultural problem.’ [ Observer-Reporter, by Mike Jones, 15/06/2012 ]


The recent discovery of state Rep. Jesse White’s multiple online personalities making anonymous attacks on his constituents cast a light on the dark reality of the Internet and cyberbullying.


The anonymity provided by the Internet oftentimes can be hurtful to those being targeted, but even vicious attacks aren’t necessarily illegal because they’re typically protected by free speech.


Cyberbullying, once thought to be a tool utilized mostly by young kids and teens on social networking sites, is becoming an increasingly popular way to attack others or humiliate them.


Mary Jo Podgurski, director of Washington Hospital Teen Outreach, said it typically is the product of someone who is “not courageous enough” to have a face-to-face disagreement with an opponent.


“It’s a very easy and anonymous way to be a bully,” Podgurski said. “People do really hurt each other. It’s a very vicious cycle.”


In her experiences, she’s noticed young people usually stick to sending nasty text messages or posting attacks through Facebook. It’s the adults who are more comfortable with anonymous comments through Internet message boards or even posting lewd photos of an ex.


“It’s an underhanded way to slander someone and hit them hard,” she said. “You can make specific insults, and they don’t think it’s traceable.”


And, in most cases, it is very difficult for average people who are being attacked on Internet to find their cyberbully.


Tracking a cyberbully

All Internet users leave behind a cybersignature that can be traced to a computer or Internet provider, but unlocking that information can be nearly impossible for the average person.


When a television station first reported that White was behind anonymous attacks on a Marcellus Shale website, the Observer-Reporter staff began investigating whether his alter egos also left comments on the newspaper’s website. It took hours to match White’s Internet protocol address from his verified account to two messages he posted under the pseudonym of Janice Gibson earlier this year.


In most cases, though, people must utilize the courts to reveal information, through which investigators can subpoena Internet records.


North Strabane Township police Detective John Wybranowski handles the cybercomplaints in the department and said they’re seeing more cases involving harassment on Facebook than anything else. He said it’s often difficult to determine if a crime has been committed since what a person is permitted to say under free speech laws must be taken into consideration.


“A threat of violence we have to take very seriously,” he said.


Although the district attorneys in Washington and Dauphin counties are investigating White’s comments, it’s unknown if he broke any laws with his online antics. Prosecuting such crimes can be difficult, Wybranowski said, adding many police departments don’t have the training or resources to handle these investigations.


First, an officer needs to obtain a court order to obtain the Internet Protocol number identifying the computer a suspect used to post the information. Next, a search warrant needs to be signed by a judge giving police permission to enter a home and seize electronic devices.


“The amount of work needed to investigate cyberbullying is phenomenal,” said Wybranowski.


That adds another level of difficulty, he said, because there can be four or five devices in a home, and each would need to undergo a forensic examination.


“Then you have to resolve that all the way back to determine who did the posting,” he said, adding that it’s often easier to extract a confession, especially when more than one person has access to computers in a residence.


“In Pennsylvania, the laws need to catch up with the technology, and it’s changing so fast,” he said.


Making it a crime

There are various bills snaking their way through the state Legislature that would deal with cyberbullying or target online impersonators.


House Bill 764 would make it illegal for someone to use another person’s name to create a website, post messages on social networking sites, open an online account or send electronic messages. Ironically, White voted in favor of this bill just three weeks before his online personalities were revealed.


Joseph Schwerha, an associate professor of business law and technology at California University of Pennsylvania, said it might be difficult to enact laws and enforce them when free speech is so important for our society. He pointed to other countries that crack down on radical beliefs many would consider offensive but must be allowed here.


“We’ve always protected speech at the cost of illegitimate opinions,” Schwerha said. “There are parts of the world where there are hate speech laws, which we protect in the U.S.”


But Schwerha, who has worked on cybercrimes and online identity theft for two decades, said the anonymity of the Internet sometimes brings out the worst in people. What he found most interesting about White’s situation is that he created an army of faux online personalities to support his opinions and push forward his agenda.


“When people don’t have to reveal their true identity, they seem to say or do things they wouldn’t otherwise because they can shield their reputation,” Schwerha said.


Online culture

Online message boards attached to news articles offer readers an outlet to express themselves, but also an opportunity to launch attacks against their foes.


When the Observer-Reporter redesigned its website in November, Editor Liz Rogers said they hoped the new commenting feature would engage readers and produce energetic conversations. Instead, she said, it spawned a “mob mentality” of nasty comments that were nearly impossible to police by the staff.


“It degenerated into a bunch of name-calling and insults,” Rogers said. “It just got downright nasty.”


The newspaper pulled the plug on the commenting feature in March after one reader – not Jesse White – continuously posted lewd comments and personal attacks aimed at staff members despite attempts to block him from the site. Rogers said the newspaper could eventually restore the message board, but only if it can implement a system that requires readers to register using their real names and email addresses.


“We were extremely disappointed about how it turned out,” Rogers said. “It wasn’t constructive. We hoped the dialogue would be something that would benefit both the community and staff.”


Podgurski isn’t surprised that the comments quickly turned ugly. She pointed to a recent online cereal advertisement that featured a biracial family. Despite receiving many supportive comments, it had to be censored because of the unrelenting attacks by a few users.


“Sometimes they’re just so flat out disrespectful that you don’t want to post them,” Podgurski said. “We’re suppose to have the Golden Rule.”


Ultimately, she thinks that the online discourse displayed by Internet users is just an indication of the times.


“They see a lot of anger in the political theater and on the media. I think it’s cultural,” Podgurski said. “We have a cultural problem with respect, and cyberbullying is a part of that.”


Staff writer Scott Beveridge contributed to this story.

Are social networks child friendly? [, by Garreth Murphy, 31/1/2011].

LIKE more than 500 million people around the world, I have a Facebook account.

My son, who is eight years of age, would like one too. Aside from the fact that his mother and I don’t think it’s wise for a child of his age to be surfing the internet, Facebook doesn’t allow it. Most popular social networking sites, such as Facebook and MySpace, restrict the minimum age of their users to 13. But that doesn’t stop pre-teens from setting up accounts by entering a false age.


A large part of the appeal of Facebook is its accessibility. It’s ridiculously easy to set up an account. Just to prove it, I set up a page in my son’s name. All I needed was an email address (which his mother and I have the password for) and when it came to entering his age, I simply wrote that he was five years older than he actually is. Simple. It takes less than five minutes.

“It’s up to parents themselves,” says Catherine Bolger, registered psychologist with DIT. “They have a responsibility to strictly supervise their children’s and young teens’ access to any internet sites — not just social networking sites. It sounds obvious but parents need to know what their children are doing.”

But pre-teens are resourceful and have embraced technology with an ease that their parents can sometimes find difficult to comprehend. And it’s not just a question of monitoring the family’s computer any more — most mobile phones now have internet capabilities.

More children can now use a smart-phone than can tie their own shoelaces or make breakfast, according to a January 2011 survey by software company AVG. In the poll of 2,200 mothers with internet access and children aged between two and five, more children knew how to play with a smart-phone app (19pc) than tie their own shoelaces.

While there are no statistics available to indicate how many pre-teens have social networking accounts, Facebook themselves say that they take a zero-tolerance line with those who give a false age when signing up.

“Facebook has systems in place to prevent people who identify themselves as under the age of 13 from creating accounts,” says a Facebook spokesperson when asked about their age verification process. “It’s a violation of our Statement of Rights and Responsibilities ( to provide false birth-date information, and we have community verification systems after sign-up to help identify people who are doing this so we can take action.”


Facebook admits that age verification is a difficult area to police. “There is no ‘perfect’ solution when it comes to age verification — on Facebook or anywhere else on the web. A child of any age can head to a search engine and look for whatever they want, from perfectly acceptable material to the highly unsavoury. What the Facebook environment offers in contrast to the wider internet is, in effect, a walled garden that enables teens to share the best of the web and consume it in a safe place where unacceptable content is quickly removed.”

If Facebook itself doesn’t have the answer, what hope do parents have? When it comes to social networking, they can either use software to block the websites or can give in to their pre-teens’ requests and allow them to set up accounts online.

Neither is a real solution, say experts. Linda Criddle, author of Look Both Ways: Help Protect Your Family on the Internet says parents should respect the guidelines of any website that their child wants to join. “Doing otherwise teaches children that it’s okay to disregard the terms and conditions of the service,” she says.

Blocking social networking websites is not the answer, says Simon Grehan of, a Government, sponsored safety initiative, providing internet safety information, advice and tools for parents and teachers.

“Parents have to take a common-sense approach. Parents have to open the lines of communication rather than just looking for filtering options to block social networking sites.”

Although Facebook has self-imposed the 13-year-old restriction, Grehan says that parents should judge for themselves when a child is ready for these types of websites. “Parents know their children better than anyone else. Some kids of 11 are very mature, while some kids of 15 are very immature. So parents themselves are best placed to make the decision of when their children are ready.”

Cyber-bullying remains a big concern of many parents. Last year the case of Irish teen Phoebe Prince made international headlines. The 15-year-old girl, who moved with her family to Massachusetts, was allegedly subjected to a sustained campaign of online abuse, which prosecutors have said led to her suicide in January 2010. And it’s not an isolated incident. Newspapers and the internet are littered with stories about cyber bullying and worse on networking sites.

But parents should take heart. Irish kids are among the most responsible users of social networking websites, according to a Europe-wide study conducted late in 2010.

The EU Kids Online research found that Irish children are the least likely to publish their address or phone number on their profile (just 7pc in Ireland compared to 14pc in Europe) and most likely to have a private profile (11pc). Irish children are less likely to encounter key risk factors — pornography, bullying, sending/receiving sexual messages, going to meetings with contacts first met online– than most of their European peers. Children here ranked 21 out of 23 for having seen sexual images online in the past 12 months.

But the more children use the internet, the more they are likely to encounter risk. Next Tuesday, February 8, is Safer Internet Day, and to mark the occasion, a new online resource is to be launched to help parents get involved in what their children are doing online, ( webwise). Communication is the key when it comes to the internet, says Aine Lynch, CEO of the National Parents Council Primary, which is involved in the Internet Safer Day: “One of the reasons children say that they don’t tell parents about things they come across on the internet that they feel uncomfortable with, is they feel that their parent may take away access to the computer. So it is important that you reassure your child that they can come to you about anything they may have seen on the internet.”

Aine advises that parents establish ground rules with their children: “It is important to talk to your child about the areas of personal information and meeting with online friends. For rules and boundaries to be really effective they are best developed between you and your child. If your child has had an input in developing the agreement in relation to their internet usage they are more likely to see the rules and sanctions as fair and are therefore more likely to abide by them.

“Rules should be very clear that your child does not give out personal information.”

For more see webwise or

Scots teachers call for legal clampdown on Facebook as schools see rise in cyberbullying [Herald Scotland, Investigation by Rachel Money, 17/10/2010]]

Scottish teachers want a legal showdown with Facebook in a bid to make social networking sites accountable for abusive and intimidating comments posted online by school children.


The Education Institute of Scotland (EIS), the country’s biggest teaching union, says it receives between 50 and 60 complaints a year from teachers who have been cyberbullied, harassed and threatened online by their students.

Drew Morrice, EIS Assistant Secretary, said new laws are needed to bring websites more into line with newspapers and broadcasters which are subject to defamation and libel legislation.

He claimed most social networking sites such as Facebook “have published derogatory material and in some cases it does a lot of emotional damage”.

“We need a change in the law to make liability rest with the site holders,” he said.

Teachers have become “fair game” for malicious comment online, Morrice said, adding that there was “no reason for these social media sites to get legal immunity”. At the moment, social media websites and their owners cannot be prosecuted for insults and threats made by users.

The EIS has commissioned new research which will look at the extent of cyberbullying and harassment of teachers and lecturers for the first time.

In new legislation passed under the Criminal Justice and Licensing (Scotland) Act 2010, which will come into force shortly, police are to be given more powers to charge those who have harassed people using emails, text messages and social networking sites. The EIS said it will support any teacher who wishes to pursue a criminal complaint under the new laws.

Schoolteacher Jennifer, who asked for her identity to be withheld, discovered three of her teenage pupils had posted abusive comments on a website, stating they wanted to punch, stab and burn her. Two of the students have now been charged with breach of the peace.

Jennifer told the Sunday Herald: “I know these girls may end up with a criminal record and I have been torn about what to do, but I feel like I have given so much of my effort and energy into these girls and for them to turn around and do what they did is wrong.”

Brian Donnelly, Director of RespectMe, Scotland’s anti-bullying service, said: “We need to educate young people on how to use the internet and to think about what they say online and where the boundaries are.”

Dr Alistair Duff, an information technology lecturer at Edinburgh’s Napier University, described cyberspace as the “Wild West” as it is as yet untamed by law or social boundaries.

A Facebook spokeswoman said: “There is no place for cyberbullying on Facebook and we respond aggressively to reports of potential abuse. Reports involving harassment are prioritised, with most reviewed within 24 hours.”

A Scottish Government spokesperson described cyberbullying as a “deeply frightening crime” and promised that “perpetrators who engage in this criminal activity [will be] brought to justice.

“When implemented, the new stalking offence in the Criminal Justice & Licensing (Scotland) Act 2010 will give victims … greater legal protection, whilst ensuring prosecutors have the full range of powers available to them to bring a conviction.”



‘There were even death threats on there, like how they wanted to stab me and shoot me in the face’


Next month Jennifer, a secondary schoolteacher for more than 15 years, will step into court to see two of her students face criminal charges after posting what she describes as “vile” comments about her online.

Still visibly upset, she describes how the “ordeal”, began: “I was in the classroom with fifth-year pupils and I could sense an atmosphere in the room, girls giggling and whispering every time I had my back turned. I had a hunch something was happening online. I Googled one of the girls’ names and up came a Bebo page which was public. Within a few clicks I was reading a conversation between three of my pupils and there was a photograph of me they had taken without my knowledge in a classroom.

“The comments were pornographic, calling me names and saying what they’d like to do to me, very derogatory about me personally, calling me the ‘c-word’ all the time. I felt like I’d been sexually abused. I felt so violated. There were even death threats on there, like how they wanted to stab me and shoot me in the face.

“My first instinct was to go to the principal. At first he said he couldn’t do anything because this happened outside of school, but eventually the campus police officer spoke to the girls and that’s when one of them apologised. The officer asked me if I wanted to press charges on the two who didn’t apologise and I said ‘yes’.

“When police got involved, one of the girls’ fathers said he agreed with all his daughter had written about me. This is what you’re up against. The stress is ridiculous. I ended up in A&E after I collapsed at school. They told me I’d had a severe anxiety attack. I can’t sleep because I’m worried about the court case. It’s horrendous.

“Teenagers seem to think they can write whatever they like about people and there’s no consequence. I can see this could explode and get worse for teachers if something isn’t done now.

“Parents are often concerned about their child being bullied or targeted by paedophiles but do they check on what they’re writing on Bebo about others?”

The girls face breach of the peace charges.

Bebo did not respond to the Sunday Herald’s request for a comment on this story.