OPINION: Cyber-Bullying - A Dark Side of the Internet

By State Senator Roy Dyson (D-29th)

The Internet places a profound and staggering degree of information and knowledge at our fingertips. The Internet is the ultimate library and encyclopedia. It enables an army of telecommuting working men and women to work at home. It facilitates instant back and forth communication by e-mail. Online, we read newspapers and listen to music. The Internet is where we can advertise goods for sale on e-bay and purchase all sorts of items at retail stores.

However, there is a dark aspect to the Internet. It can provide a haven for pedophiles stalking youngsters via chat rooms and a marketplace for pornography and prostitution. The Internet also provides a venue where ID thieves can get personal information about individuals to facilitate ID theft.

New words, associated with the Internet's dark side, have entered our vocabulary. Cyber-bullying is a situation where a child, tween or teen is repeatedly tormented, threatened, harassed or otherwise targeted by another child tween or teen using electronic communication - a computer, cell phone, or any other type of digital technology. Cyber-stalking or cyber-harassment is the same as cyber-bullying, only it is perpetrated by adults toward adults.

Cyber-bullying has been increasing over the last several years. A 2000 study by the Crimes Against Children Research Center showed that 6% of young people had experienced some type of cyber-bullying. A 2005 study revealed that the percentage had grown to 20%.

Law enforcement agencies have estimated that electronic communications are a factor in from 20% to 40% of stalking cases.

In September 2006, abcNews produced a survey conducted by I-Safe.Org. which involved 1,500 students between grades 4-8. The survey found:

-- 42% of kids have been bullied while online. One in four have had it happen more than once.

-- 35% of kids have been threatened online. One in five has had it happen more than once.

-- 21% of kids have received mean or threatening e-mails or other messages.

-- 58% of kids admit someone has said mean or hurtful things to them online. More than four out of ten say it has happened more than once.

-- 58% have not told their parents or an adult about something mean or hurtful that has happened to them online.

Research has shown that there are a number of serious emotional responses to cyber-bullying, ranging from lowered self-esteem to fear, anger and depression. The reluctance of young people to tell an authority figure about instances of cyber-bullying has led to fatal outcomes. According to USA Today, at least three children between the ages of 12 and 13 have committed suicide due to depression brought on by cyber-bullying. Most of us have read about Megan Meier, a 13-year old who was cyber-bullied by an adult neighbor and driven to suicide.

Nineteen states, including Maryland, have enacted laws to prohibit cyber-bullying. Similar to the laws in other states, Maryland's 2008 law requires the Board of Education to develop policy prohibiting cyber-bullying within schools or in school settings, such as a school bus or activity.

Basically, the law protects children from the cruelty of other children during school hours and school-related activities. However, we should not lose sight of the existence of cyber-bullying beyond the school yard. In all probability, proposals to expand protection of children from cyber-bullying in their homes and other settings will be considered by the upcoming 2009 General Assembly session. They will have my support.

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