Cyberbullying: A “Virtual” Camp Nightmare?

by Joel D. Haber, Ph.D., and Scott B. Haber

I'll never forget that panicked phone call from a camp director after she received a call from a distraught parent whose daughter had been "outed" online by a group of her "girlfriends" one week before camp. Her daughter was devastated. She thought these girls were her friends, and she didn't want to go to camp any more. The mother was extremely upset, looking for answers and a way to rectify this situation. How would you handle this situation?

In the years since Columbine, our nation seriously started tackling school bullying. Through the American Camp Association, we have been making tremendous strides in the camp bullying field with articles, policy information, and letters to parents providing a dialogue, information, and management about day and resident camp bullying. However, we face a new and disturbing threat with bullying concerns that have catapulted this issue to a whole new level—bullying is now "virtual." The "sticks and stones may break my bones" nursery rhyme has a PG-rating compared to the new and problematic ways in which bullying over the Internet can destroy and humiliate its victims.

How disturbing is cyberbullying for our camp community? Here are a few examples:

  • A picture of a counselor dressed scantily taken surreptitiously by another counselor when the counselor was getting dressed is posted online without the counselor's knowledge.
  • A picture taken of a counselor drinking at a bar looking sloshed after work is posted on a Web site for parents to see with unflattering remarks said about her.
  • A "hit list" of the biggest losers at camp including campers and counselors is posted on a popular social-networking site.
  • An online rumor started by a group of boys about a bunkmate they claimed to be "gay" following a picture taken of him hugging another camper goodbye at the end of last season.
  • Online profiles of campers and counselors which are nasty, disturbing, and meant to harm the victims by exposing their vulnerabilities in upsetting ways.
  • Campers relating sexually inappropriate information online about other campers to their friends and counselors as a way to be popular and isolate others on the bottom of the social ladder.

Cyberbullying: What is it?

Cyberbullying involves the use of information and communication technologies such as e-mail, cell phone and pager text messages, instant messaging, personal Web sites or blogs, and online personal polling Web sites. The technology is used to promote deliberate, repeated, and hurtful behavior by an individual or group, with the intent to harm others. This is similar in many ways to our familiar notion of bullying. The key to bullying is that there has to be intent to harm a person with lesser power. The intent of harm can come from a group that can be quite large in the case of the Internet, or from an individual. It is different in its method: Cyberbullies do their bullying through technology.

How has cyberbullying grown so quickly and become such a big issue? Why do we tolerate this behavior online if we don't tolerate this behavior in our actual lives? We tolerate it because we see technology changing so quickly—we don't understand it, don't have the tools to manage it, and most importantly, because access to the Internet is 24/7. It is too easy to do if you want to be hurtful to another person. Cyberbullying can happen when adult supervision is lean—the common problem with bullying in the first place. It is more common than regular bullying because it is "indirect."

The Internet tends to provide people with a false sense of security because there is a level of anonymity—and no direct feedback in the form of social cues or a verbal response from someone outside. Thus, it makes it easy for almost anyone to do things they think they can "get away with." People will say things online that they would never say to another person face-to-face. The distance created by technology makes the act of bullying much easier to perform. Rather than threatening a kid to his face, cyberbullies can simply type the message and hit send without seeing the all too real look on the face of the kid who receives it.

Prevalence of Cyberbullying

According to i-Safe America, in a study of more than 1,500 kids, ages ten to fourteen, 57 percent of kids report that someone has said hurtful or angry things to them online, 42 percent report having been bullied online, and 20 percent have received mean or threatening e-mails. More importantly, 58 percent of these kids had not told their parents or another adult about someone being mean to them.

In the camp area, my own data of 1,200 camp staff surveyed from the summer of 2006 reveals some interesting statistics. A breakdown of 434 males and 788 females yields the following responses to the question:

View Chart 1

This data shows us that cyberbullying among females is almost twice as likely to occur in the most common forms of cyberbullying: e-mail and instant messaging. The data reveal that cyberbullying is widely experienced by our camp staff.

If we ask camp staff if they have ever cyberbullied another person, here's what they reported:

View Chart 2

Males freely admit that their online behavior may have crossed the line. In comparison, the female staff is much less likely to admit to their own behavior as crossing the line. Does the Internet provide an easier way for "indirect" communication (which is a hallmark of relational aggression and female bullying) to be made more simple? It seems to be so. It may be argued though, that female staff may have bullied others less, and that the bullying that they encountered may have come from males and not from other females. Regardless, the prevalence of this behavior in our camp staff helps us recognize the need for training and a discussion of policy issues for this upcoming season if we are to make an impact and decrease the frequency of bullying in cyberspace.

What Do Kids Get Bullied About Online?

While girls generally mock others for their physical appearance, boys tend to make more sexually explicit comments. Sometimes, excluding a classmate from buddy lists and online communities can be just as damaging.

Social connectedness may come by being a cyberbully. For example, kids without empathy may post derogatory comments to become part of a group. The empathy response is less likely to kick in when anonymity is increased.

Access To New Bullying Venues

There has been widespread press on the popularity of social networking sites—MySpace.com, FaceBook.com, Xanga.com, Bebo.com, Tagged.com, Sconex.com, and Friendster.com (Wallace, 2006) as our youth have found places to connect with each other with relative ease. What our youth reveal online is determined largely by their wish to connect and share who they are or who they want others to see them as.

The danger occurs when their intimate lives have been revealed; their pictures and personal information have been posted; and they have either opened themselves up for exploitation or been on the receiving end of meanness for online postings that were never meant for the world to see.

Although almost half of our camp staff are using these sites for their own use, 7 percent or less of both male and female staff have been bullied online on these sites according to their self report (Haber, J. 2006). Obviously, we have to be careful of the potential of these social networking sites—especially if they are used in negative ways to portray themselves as less than flattering to get attention or for cyberbullying to make someone feel bad.

Targets of Cyberbullying
Bullying is about an exploitation of some vulnerability that creates an imbalance of power. Kids who are insecure or socially vulnerable are targets of cyberbullying. Kids who sometimes are bullied during school may in fact be those same targets in camp or over the Internet because of some vulnerability that others pick up on. Ironically, for vulnerable kids, online social experiences may be a good way to develop relationships and create positive opportunities for themselves. However, there needs to be clear and open communication with parents or camp staff if these relationships involve any bullying problems.

Who Are These Cyber Bullies?

In many ways cyberbullying involves the same problem kids who exploit others, but in other ways, the cyberbullies of today
involve a different group of kids. Unlike the bullies of a generation ago, cyberbullies can get to their prey right in their own rooms and exploit their vulnerability. Cyberbullies may attack many more kids because their ability to access their own empathy may not kick into high gear when face-to-face contact is absent.

A victim on the other hand who may never have had the power and is Internet savvy can wreak havoc on another kid
because of his or her IT prowess. Kids we may never have suspected as bullies before are those we now have to watch out for in the Internet world. Someone once told me that cyberbullying may become the "revenge of the computer geeks," but time will tell if these patterns take hold. In the Internet world, the child who is really skilled on a computer regardless of their physical stature, popularity, likeability, etc., may hold the power.

Just like in other forms of bullying, reacting to the bully only serves to confirm and substantiate their feeling of power. Their bullying mission, whether in person or online, has succeeded in their own minds when a victim becomes upset.

Many cyberbullies convince other online buddies to exclude or reject a potential victim and cut off the victim's social connectedness. Once this is achieved, it confirms the cyberbully's sense of power, furthers their interest in continuing to cyberbully, and decreases the bully's empathy.

When Is Cyberbullying My Responsibility?

Your campers and staff are part of your camp family. If one of your staff or campers bullies another in a school setting (not a part of your camp) then this incident is outside your domain, and you do not have to act on it. However, knowing that staff members or campers have engaged in bullying behavior is helpful so that you can observe them when they are under your watch and have a meaningful discussion with them about their behavior before you bring them back to camp. On the other hand, if a staff person or camper cyberbullies another person who is connected to your camp, then you have a responsibility to draw the line, and let him know that his behavior goes against policy. The tougher stand you take against it, the greater likelihood you will have to manage these issues between the camp sessions. Ask yourself the question: Will I tolerate any bullying of any kind that I know occurred with one of my staff or campers?

How to Tackle Cyberbullying

Cyberbullying can only be tackled if we understand what our kids are doing online and accept that the Internet is ripe for bullying because adult supervision is lean and young people have developed a language that allows for communications to go "under the radar."

As adults, do we really know what kids are doing online? Although this may seem like a strange question, parents have misconceptions about online habits of their children. In one study (Haber, S., 2005), children and adults were given similar surveys to assess adult's knowledge of what their kids were doing on the Internet and the perception of how much time was actually spent online/day. Results showed that parents significantly underestimate, by a couple of hours, the amount of time their kids spend online and assume that kids are doing homework with their online time. Results in fact, showed that kids were instant messaging, playing games, or listening to music with the additional hours that parents were unaware they were spending online.

In a second study (Haber, S., 2006) the author assessed the degree that parents even knew the language that kids were using since IMing and e-mailing are used by at least three-quarters of all middle school kids. Now that kids can send their own "short-handed" notes over the Internet without having to use their voice, they've created a language that many parents don't understand.

The results of this study revealed that parents knew approximately five of these terms in relation to the sixteen on average for the kids. After the five terms known by parents, there was a 50 percent difference at best for the rest of the terms, supporting the hypothesis that parents do not know the language of the Internet that kids are using to chat with one another.

What does this mean? We as adults have to become more proficient in the language and understanding of the meaning of online communication for our campers and staff. Knowing the language is a first step because it will give you credibility with staff and campers when it comes to cyberbullying.

The reality is that we are still in the process of learning about cyberbullying, and we need to continue our dialogue about these issues so we can gain consensus on what needs to be done to combat it. Here is what you can do for now:

  1. Learn the language of the Internet and realize that our kids are spending a great deal more time online.
  2. Manage camp information through your Web site, and ask that information about campers or staff be given your approval before being posted on social networking sites. Although social networking sites are here to stay, at the very least ask anyone communicating about your camp through these sites or a blog to put a disclaimer on their Web page or site acknowledging that this site does not represent official camp business. Ask them not to use your logo or other official photographs (Bob Ditter 2006).
  3. Include cyberbullying as part of your anti-bullying policy in camp. Let counselors and campers know that any intent to hurt or harm another, whether it be through physical, verbal, relational, or cyberbullying will not be tolerated. Have all members of your camp staff read your policy, and have parents and children sign it too.
  4. Consider a cell phone ban or registration of cell phones to minimize the taking of unauthorized photos from these cell phones.
  5. Utilize Internet and bully-savvy staff as part of a "discipline response team" with the camp director to handle any bullying or emerging cyberbullying problems, so when they arise, you will be prepared to manage these issues.
  6. Send a letter home to parents about bullying and especially about cyberbullying. Encourage parents and campers to let you know of any incidents of cyberbullying. Tell them to save objective evidence by printing out all e-mail, instant messaging text, chat room discussions, or photos that were downloaded without their permission. Ask them to forward all evidence to you as quickly as possible so you can deal with these incidents.
  7. Encourage campers or staff who receive any threats not to respond to someone who is mean to them online, but print the data, and give it to an adult who can handle it (a parent or camp person who can deal with these events).
  8. Have the parent contact the Internet service provider and lodge a complaint against the attacker, because this is usually a "terms of use" violation of the Internet service provider.
  9. As a camp director, or a staff person on the "discipline response team," contact the parents of the cyberbully when you have information to back up your claims. Provide them with the documentation you have, and request that the bullying stop, and that an apology be made to the victim as a beginning step towards restitution.
  10. If necessary and the situation calls for it, the police can be notified, if the nature of the cyberbullying involves harassment (a punishable offense), a hate crime, stalking, or dealing with sexually explicit pictures of a minor.

Most importantly, think about the camp environment and the message you want to send about your camp values and mission statement. When your camp values are intentional and your camp community abides by these rules, there is a greater chance that cyberbullying like conventional bullying will be reduced. Continue discussing issues of cyberbullying with your staff as a process to approach some meaningful ways to manage it and to stay on top of it. Your staff may have more knowledge of this than you, and their expertise is invaluable. Staff awareness of your involvement in this area sends a clear message about your conviction to reduce the degree of bullying in any form and improve the emotional and physical safety of your camp community.

Types of Cyberbullying

  • Flaming—sending mean, rude, or crude messages through e-mail, text messaging, or instant messaging.
  • Harassment—repeatedly sending offensive messages to someone.
  • Cyber-Stalking—ongoing harassment with threats of harm.
  • Impersonating or Masquerading—using the online identity of another to post material that makes that person look bad.
  • Outing—publicly revealing private or embarrassing information or pictures in an attempt to humiliate or ostracize them.
 

Test Your Knowledge of Internet Terminology
Take the following test and fill in the names of these Internet terms:

1. lol
2. btw
3. sos
4. nm
5. w/e
6. jk
7. gtg
8. rofl
9. ttyl
10. nmjc

11. L8r
12. BB
13. kk
14. cya
15. gl
16. brb
17. bbl
18. omg
19. ily
20. pos

(For answers, see Appendix 1.)

 
References
Wallace, S.G. (2006). Their space or yours? Social networking sites bring risks and rewards to the camp community. Camping Magazine, 79 (6).
Ditter, B. (2006) Social Networking Group Pages for Camp-the New Counselor "Hangout." Camping Magazine, 79 (6).
i-Safe America study. (2004). Students online behavior. www.isafe.org.
Haber, S.B. (2005). It's 8:00: Do you know what your kids are doing?? Westchester Tri-County Science Fair. JFK Highschool, New York.
Haber, S.B. (2006).Wat U Say. Westchester Tri-County Science Fair. JFK Highschool, New York.
Haber, J. (2006). Unpublished study of 1,222 camp staff from the summer of 2006.

Appendix 1:
1. lol: laugh out loud  2. btw: by the way  3. sos: same old stuff  4. nm: not much  5. w/e: whatever  6. jk: just kidding  7. gtg: gotta go  8. rofl: rolling on the floor laughing  9. ttyl: talk to you later  10. nmjc: not much, just chilling  11. L8r: later  12. BBML: be back much later  13. kk: okay  14. cya: see ya  15. gl: good luck  16. brb: be right back  17. bbl: be back later  18. omg: oh my god  19. ily: I love you  20. pos: parent over shoulder

Joel Haber, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist who has devoted more than twenty years to the identification, prevention, and reduction of abusive and bullying behaviors. Founder of the Respect U program. Haber has just completed a bullying book for parents and educators due out in June 2007 by Perigee/Penguin publishers. He can be reached at joel@respectu.com.

Scott B. Haber is a high school student with a deep interest in science and technology. His studies have provided insight into the use of the Internet by students and its impact on parents. Scott's interests include rock climbing, soccer, guitar, and skiing.

Originally published in the 2007 May/June issue of Camping Magazine.

 

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