On March 10, 2011, the White House held the first-ever conference on Bullying Prevention. The goal of the conference, as President Obama explained, was “…to dispel the myth that bullying is just a harmless rite of passage or an inevitable part of growing up. It’s not.”1 Bullying is an issue that adolescents have struggled with for generations; however, with the ever increasing availability and prevalence of technology, bullying has evolved beyond the school hallways and grounds and into the home. Cyberbullying reflects the incorporation of technology into the traditional bullying model. It is the “willful and repeated harm inflicted through the use of computers, cell phones, and other electronic devices.”2
Adapting to this technological evolution, schoolyard bullies can now send text messages instead of passing notes in class, rumors and ridicule can be spread using social networks and bullying can follow the victim home through the use of the Internet. Cyberbullying introduces limitless audience access to the victim 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. Obama noted this complication during the White House conference saying, “Today, bullying doesn’t even end at the school bell—it can follow our children from the hallways to their cell phones to their computer screens,”3 and he expressed the urgency of developing and implementing effective prevention and intervention programs.
Drs. Justin Patchin and Sameer Hinduja, co-founders of the Cyberbullying Research Center, have done extensive research on the prevalence and consequences of cyberbullying. While the negative effects of cyberbullying differ from one victim to another, research shows that feelings of depression, sadness, anger, embarrassment, and frustration are common among cyberbullying victims. In some of the most serious cases, the emotional effects of cyberbullying have resulted in victims taking their own lives. These stories have become all too familiar, and in recent years the seriousness of the problem appears to be escalating. Drs. Patchin and Hinduja coined the term cyberbullicide to describe the phenomenon in which “suicide is indirectly or directly influenced by experiences with online aggression.”4 According to their 2007 study examining the relationship between cyberbullying and suicidal ideation among adolescents, they found that cyberbullying victims were 1.9 times more likely to have attempted suicide than those who were not.5
A 2006 study commissioned by the National Crime Prevention Council (NCPC) found that more than four in ten teens (43 percent) reported having experienced some form of cyberbullying in the past year.6 Further, it is believed that bullying is the most underreported safety problem on American school campuses.7 A 2008 report on online safety produced by the Internet Safety Technical Task force concluded that “Bullying and harassment, most often by peers, are the most frequent threats that minors face, both online and offline.” 8 With the ever increasing reliance on technology, this issue is one that can be expected to remain a serious safety risk to American youth, and there is an increasing need for the community leaders and local law enforcement to become involved in raising awareness and focus on prevention.
One of the major obstacles in combating the issue of cyberbullying relates to who is responsible for the prevention and enforcement measures. Many of the incidents occur off school property, which makes it difficult for school administrators to track and enforce rules against bullying and harassment when they have no jurisdiction. Further, law enforcement officials generally become involved in cases once they reach a level of seriousness that is recognized as criminal, typically with the presence of a direct threat. Currently, six states—Arkansas, Kansas, Massachusetts, Nevada, New Hampshire, and Oregon—have laws that include the word “cyberbullying,” while 31 states include “electronic harassment” within their bullying legislation.9
Deputy First Assistant Prosecutor Joseph P. Connor, Jr., Esq., and Prosecutor Robert A. Bianchi, Esq., discuss proactive projects at the School Resource Officer (SRO) meeting held at the Morris Township Frelinghuysen Middle School.
However, experts agree that education rather than legal action may be the best way to combat the problem of cyberbullying. During a discussion with Dr. Patchin, he stated that the best way to deal with the issue of cyberbullying is through education and a coordinated community response. He noted the importance of “educating the educators,” which includes law enforcement, parents, and school administration. Along with recognizing the prevalence of the issue, it is important for adults to be aware of the warning signs, understand the fundamental causes, and know the appropriate responses to cyberbullying.
Equally important as educating adults, is educating teens about the responsible use of technology. Morris County (NJ) Prosecutor, Robert Bianchi is quite familiar with this topic. Upon taking office, Bianchi developed a Community Affairs Unit (CAU) comprised of prosecutors and detectives, with the goals of building and strengthening relationships among county residents, businesses, schools, law enforcement agencies, and the judicial system. He also wanted to promote awareness of the needs and issues facing society regarding law and justice, and the diverse crime problems that are unique to each community.
While engaging community members, the Community Affairs Unit received an increasing amount of requests for information regarding the issue of cyberbullying. Detective Mark Castellano is one of the members of the Morris County Prosecutor’s Community Affairs Unit who volunteers his time presenting to the community. Detective Castellano and his fellow colleagues have conducted 38 presentations to nearly 5,000 students, parents, law enforcement officials, school administrators, and community members, educating them on the definitions, dangers, and ways to respond to cyberbullying. These presentations engage the audience, and help them understand what it’s like to be the victim of cyberbullying while encouraging bystanders to take action when inappropriate activity occurs.
Det. Mark Castellano, presents information and consequences of Cyber Bullying through a PowerPoint presentation and discussion with parents.
Bianchi recommends that law enforcement agencies create a vision for anti-bullying enforcement and commit to it. This enthusiasm by law enforcement will infect the community, leading to awareness on bullying and cyberbullying. Following the community policing model, agencies should reach out to faith-based, educational, and business organizations to create open communication lines and a network of support in the community. Once the communication lines are forged, an open, honest dialogue can begin about addressing cyberbullying. Bianchi stresses that law enforcement agencies have to develop their approach based on the interest of their targeted communities.
The CAU stands as an example of one of the ways law enforcement officials can get involved in the community without strictly enforcing the law, but working towards prevention. Bianchi highlighted the importance of this kind of community outreach, in that it is a show of force and support to the seriousness of the problem. As Bianchi states, “a broken spirit is worse than a broken bone,” which is why the Morris County Prosecutor’s Community Affairs Unit and the work of researchers like Dr. Justin Patchin and Dr. Sameer Hinduja is paramount in the fight to protect the spirit of our youth. Cyberbullying is too large of an issue to be placed on one agency or organization; it needs to be addressed through a multifocal plan.
For more information on cyberbullying please visit the Cyberbullying Research Center at http://www.cyberbullying.us/ and for more information on the Morris County Prosecutor’s Office Community Affairs Unit please visit http://morrisprosecutor.org/community.asp.
The COPS Office
1President Obama. 2011. “President Obama & the First Lady at the White House Conference on Bullying Prevention.” The White House Blog, posted March 10. www.whitehouse.gov/blog/2011/03/10/president-obama-first-lady-white-house-conference-bullying-prevention
2Hinduja, S. and J. W. Patchin. 2010. Cyberbullying fact sheet: Identification, Prevention, and Response. Cyberbullying Research Center. Retrieved [3/1/2011], from www.cyberbullying.us/Cyberbullying_Identification_Prevention_Response_Fact_Sheet.pdf
3President Obama. 2011. “President Obama & the First Lady at the White House Conference on Bullying Prevention.” The White House Blog, posted March 10. www.whitehouse.gov/blog/2011/03/10/president-obama-first-lady-white-house-conference-bullying-prevention
8 Internet Safety Technical Task Force, Enhancing Child Safety & Online Technologies: Final Report of the Internet Safety Technical Task Force to the Multi-State Working Group on Social Networking of State Attorneys General of the United States, 2008.
9 Hinduja, S. and Patchin, J. 2010. State Cyberbullying Laws: A Brief Review of State Cyberbullying Laws and Policies. Cyberbullying Research Center. Retrieved [3/1/11], from www.cyberbullying.us/Bullying_and_Cyberbullying_Laws.pdf