Teens turning social sites into weapons
Popular online tools used for harassment
CAPITAL REGION For some teenagers, social media has become a nightmare.
On Instagram, some local girls have had their pictures posted with demeaning descriptions.
Four Guilderland High School boys posted a song on YouTube in which they named 20 sophomore girls and described them in obscene ways.
Another person created a Facebook page dedicated to “hos” in the Schenectady area and posted more than a dozen pictures of local middle school girls with derogatory descriptions of their alleged sex lives.
And that was just in the past two months.
The problem is so common that Schenectady City School District Superintendent Laurence Spring says Facebook is “a gift from the devil.”
For many teenagers, one incident can be devastating — because it never seems to end.
When Gabriella Camp, 15, first saw photos of her posted with a description of her as an “ugly” girl, she was upset.
“After I saw it, I was really upset and crying. Like, who would do that?” she asked.
Then others jumped onto the bandwagon, eagerly critiquing her looks.
One commenter wrote, “Such an ugly white girl that no one likes in Schenectady.”
Camp tried to avoid the page, but commenters tagged her user name in their comments, so she would be automatically notified of what they said.
“Every day, it’s gotten worse,” she said.
At the same time, other local girls, some as young as 12, were accused of graphic sex acts on a Facebook page.
Spring said students make those accusations because sex is seen as “particularly shaming” among girls. That’s why obscene sex talk is the weapon of choice on social media, he said.
The shame of sex is also used to attack victims who had previously been sexually assaulted, officials said. Social media attacks regularly re-traumatize teens trying to recover from sexual assault, said Christin Guilder, a prevention educator at the Albany County Crime Victims and Sexual Violence Center.
Typically, she said, victims who come to her center are being mocked online for an assault they suffered.
“You’ve been assaulted and now everyone in the school knows,” she said.
In the past, students might have been teased in a hallway or received mocking notes. Now, she said, most harassers turn to social media.
“It’s definitely the means in which students are choosing to engage in these aggressive behaviors,” she said.
Once cyberbullying happens, there are some steps a victim can take. They should notify an adult, just as they do for face-to-face bullying, school officials said.
They should also report the page or post to the social media site that hosts it. Every site has a way to report or “flag” an inappropriate item, and that’s the best way to get those items removed, according to Facebook and YouTube officials.
Camp tried to report the “ugly” photos page to Instagram, but it hasn’t worked.
“I even tried calling Instagram. Absolutely nothing happened. It’s still up,” she said.
The posting clearly violates Instagram’s published rules. The company did not return an email seeking comment.
At Facebook, engineers are working on ways to catch bullying before it’s published on the site.
“We’ve looked at that. It’s very challenging,” said spokesman Matt Steinfeld.
In some cases, attackers use photos that don’t seem too bad to an objective third party. Embarrassing pictures often need context to be understood, he said.
But derogatory commentary like the recent Schenectady Facebook page could be found with a computerized program, and Facebook’s Compassion Research Team is working to create one. It already has a program that matches photos to a database of child abuse photos so those images can be blocked before they are posted, he said.
Facebook and other social media networks also have their own review teams, which look over any item that is flagged as inappropriate. Those teams have the power to remove anything.
Depending on the incident, online bullies can also face criminal charges. Four boys at Guilderland High School have been charged with misdemeanors in connection with the YouTube rap song. The 16- and 17-year-olds were charged with cyberbullying, a new charge created in 2010 by the Albany County Legislature to make online harassment a crime.They face as much as 11⁄2 years in jail if convicted.
But Spring noted that removing the original post and punishing the poster isn’t the end of the matter.
“Even if that page is taken down, that stuff is not gone,” he said. “There are people who took screenshots. I’m sure it’s cached in some computers.”
And when those photos and posts resurface, it hurts the victim again.
“It’s completely impacting their ability to heal,” Guilder said. “It’s impossible. They’re unable to escape it. It follows them anywhere.”
Some students switch schools and close their social media accounts to try to get away from the abuse, she added. Counselors advise them to break off relations with so-called friends who go along with the bullies when the victim is mocked.
“Usually that involves a social isolation,” Guilder said.
The repeated impact of social media bullying can be so devastating that Spring urges parents to report incidents to police.
“Oftentimes I think parents are reluctant to reach out to the police,” he said. “But with cyberbullying and the apparent role it has played in suicide, I don’t think they should be reluctant.”
School officials can discipline students who impact the well-being of other students or affect their ability to get an education, even if the incidents happen off school grounds, Spring added.
Even if the attacker isn’t known, school officials can still help, he said.
“There’s certainly some things we can do to help them cope,” he said. “Particularly if the child is feeling anxious or depressed, we certainly want to know.”
School officials can also call the parents of cyberbullies and advise them on how to respond to the situation, he said. The key is to figure out what is behind the behavior.
“It’s usually not a random choice,” he said, suggesting that the bully could need counseling.
The anonymity of the Internet also plays a role because a bully might feel “safe” about attacking someone online, University at Albany psychology professor Edelgard Wulfert said.
“In contrast to traditional bullying, where the bully is typically a stronger kid who may beat up a weaker child, cyberbullying can be carried out by a physically weaker kid, a ‘nerd’ without friends, who is angry or an individual with low self-esteem who is not confident enough to speak to others face to face,” she said.
They can “say whatever comes to mind without fearing retaliation or other negative consequences for his or her behavior,” she added.
And not knowing who the bully is can make things worse for the victim, she said.
“As the bullying often is done by a group of kids who all hide behind their anonymity, the targeted child does not know who is behind the bullying and therefore feels scared and no longer knows whom to trust,” Wulfert said.
Guilder suggested that bullies also enjoy a positive reaction when they post online.
“It’s that immediate gratification: I can get 300 likes, as opposed to doing something in the hallway and only eight or 10 students seeing it,” she said.
Some students might feel powerful when they see the response to outrageous posts, she added.
“It’s ‘Let’s see how much of a stir I can create,’ testing their power,” she said.
She said youth should be taught to respond negatively to online bullying by writing critical comments in response to the post or image.
“Send a message that ‘This is not OK, and I don’t like what you’re doing,’ ” she said.
In many schools, students are taught to speak up as “active bystanders.” And that worked well in the recent Schenectady Facebook page incident. Several students wrote to defend their friends and told the poster the page was not funny and should be removed.
The page was taken down less than 24 hours later.
Guilder was pleased.
“It’s so great to hear that,” she said. “It’s so hard to be that first person to speak up. It’s very commendable.”