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Cyberbullying a real threat

Published: Monday, January 30, 2012

Updated: Monday, August 27, 2012 16:08

Cyber bullying graphic

Laura Collins

Viral videos have etched the unlikeliest of media into the public consciousness, from Rick Astley's one-hit wonder to keyboard-playing felines. Recently, however, a new type of viral act has emerged: Online bullying in the form of texts, pictures and—most shockingly—video.

A YouTube video of seven teenagers viciously attacking another teenager in Chicago's Bridgeport neighborhood became the definition of "viral" Jan. 15, swiftly gaining the attention of social news websites like Reddit as well as traditional news organizations. The footage, originally titled "Helpless Asian Man Attacked and Jumped By 7 Others Behind School," shows masked assailants punching and tackling a teenager, who manages to escape after about three minutes of the assault.

DePaul sophomore Jeanette Estrada said the video was "horrible" and could not finish watching it. "The people responsible should get expelled from school, or at least suspended," Estrada said. "There are different ways children and teenagers can resolve their problems, and violence shouldn't be an option."

The video had hundreds of thousands of views in a matter of days, and despite YouTube's removal of the original video, many users have re-uploaded it. Seven teens were charged in connection with the attack Jan. 18, one of whom is the 17-year-old son of a Cook County Sheriff's Deputy, who is being charged as an adult.

DePaul College of Education assistant professor Melissa Ockerman noted that in her study of three Pittsburgh middle schools and one in Chicago, 47 percent of students said they had been pushed or shoved by other students, and over 60 percent said they would not tell anyone about a bullying video on the internet. Ockerman co-facilitated a workshop called "From the Schoolyard to Cyberspace: A Pilot Study of Bullying Among Middle School Students," with Michelle Bruno and Constance Kramer of Indiana University of Pennsylvania at the 2012 Illinois Anti-Bullying Conference, held Jan. 20 in DePaul's Lincoln Park Student Center.

"It's frightening and alarming that kids are filming [attacks] rather than intervening," Ockerman said. "Posting it is their number one priority."

According to Bruno, students who witness bullying and other attacks generally defer the responsibility to report it. "The kids think ‘someone else will intervene,' I don't have to do it," Bruno said.

The problem with online videos, Ockerman said, is that the anonymity of the video loader and people involved can make victims feel helpless. "Kids talked about being hurt every time there's another hit on a YouTube video—it's like reliving the experience all over again," Ockerman said. Bruno called for teachers and parents to be aware of technology that can impact students' lives. "If their child seems upset because they got ‘unfriended,' they need to know what that means," Bruno said.

To curb acts of bullying, Ockerman said that there needs to be a systemic approach where everyone involved in the school system understands the dangers of bullying. "The best way to stop bullying is by community building," Ockerman said. "We need to build a school environment that is only accepting of kind behavior."

However, some professors think that in order for bullying to stop, students need to stop it themselves. Harold London, a visiting assistant professor of Secondary Education at DePaul, said that schools will have "won the battle" when students are policing bullying and harassment rather than ignoring it. "The adults aren't going to be everywhere," London said. "They're not going to be in the locker room, they're not going to be in the little nooks and crannies that the kids find where they can hide from the adults."

London, who was a high school principal for 18 years, said that bullying needs to be at the forefront and on the consciousness of everyone involved in education, although he thinks the media sometimes sensationalizes it.

"When people see videos of kids beating the daylights out of each other, people get upset," London said. "The sad part of it is that this has been going on for years and years and years, and only when there's an incident that gets the public's attention is there any real effort to do anything about it. We have to look at these things and deal with them, without trying to just slap Band-Aids on top of them."

DePaul junior Nathalie Castillo, who majors in elementary education, thinks that the media does not report instances of bullying often enough. "Many are not educated on cyber-bullying and it can be as much of a threat as physical bullying," Castillo said. "We have seen many teens take their lives due to this and it's just something that can't go on any longer." Castillo described the recent viral bullying video as "an extreme case," and said that those responsible should be sentenced for what they did.

The recent viral bullying video also raises questions about the role of teachers and social media in preventing similar incidents. London said that the only way he would consider charging one of the students as an adult, or charging anyone, would be if the teacher responsible for the students is also charged for negligence.

"The adults have to assume responsibility for creating an environment where kids are not going to behave that way," London said. "What role did the teacher's physical absence play in getting as out of control as it did? Teachers need to understand that sometimes their mere presence is a deterrent."

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