February 10th, 2008 13:42 EST
It All Was Great Fun
Cell phones can make your life easier or turn it into a nightmare. The latter happened to Anna, a 14-year-old high school student from Poland, who was recorded by a cell phone digital camera when her classmates pinned her to a table and stripped her down to her underwear.
Cyberbullying has become a serious threat to teenagers. Although Anna's case is an extreme example of the danger posed by cell phones – or rather their irresponsible users – stories like hers occur on a daily basis in every corner of the world. According to the National Crime Prevention Council, a Washington-based organization with a long record on fighting crimes in the U.S., cyberbullying “happens when teens use the Internet, cell phones, or other devices to send or post text or images intended to hurt or embarrass another person.”
In Anna's case, the perpetrators were her classmates whom she had known for many years. She was considered an “easy girl” at the school because someone said he had caught her making out with an older student. It later turned out to be untrue but the seed of gossip had already been sown. When Anna remained immune to her classmates' vulgar courtship, they used force to make her more responsive. The posting of the video on the Internet came naturally because “everybody does it.” The students took inspiration from some security guards from a local club who had filmed two teenagers having sex in a lavatory. Soon after the video appeared on the Web, the couple had to change their schools; they even dyed their hair so as people wouldn't recognize them on the streets.
The more technologically advanced a society is, the more common is cyberbullying. In the United States, where over 70 percent of the country's population have access to the Internet, cyberbullying affects around one third of all American teens. Twenty percent of them have been threatened online more than once. Almost 60 percent have not told their parents about their problems. Figures from other countries are no less alarming. In the United Kingdom – Europe's hub for technological innovation – one in ten teenagers have fallen victim to cyberbullying. The worst situation is in Japan, where almost every grammar school student owns at least one cell phone. It is suspected that from 1999 to 2005 cyberbullying alone could have been the cause of 16 suicides. But this can only be the tip of the iceberg. Chiharu Utsumi of the Bereaved by School Accidents and Events – an organization which offers help to the relatives of students affected by school violence – told the Reuters press agency that “things that shouldn't have happened are secretly settled and hidden by schools as if they never took place.”
At first, the authorities from Anna's school wanted to brush the tragedy under the blanket. The molestation occurred when there was no teacher in the classroom because she had been called out by the principal. Leaving over 20 students without proper supervision was a flagrant breach of basic school rules and no one was interested in highlighting the shameful case. When the teacher finally came back after almost half an hour to continue her Polish class, some students informed her about what had just happened. The frightened girl was taken to the school nurse and brought home. The four were left untroubled for the rest of the day. Anna's parents were both at work at the time so she was left with her older brother. None of the schools authorities bothered to call Anna later and ask how she was doing.
Cyberbullying has its roots in the dramatic increase of school violence. According to professors P. Thunfors and D. Cornell of the University of Virginia, schools have become a fertile ground for aggression because teachers and parents have lost their authority among teenagers. Their study published in the Journal of School Violence found that “bullies [are] among the most popular students in the school, receiving more peer nominations on average than students uninvolved in bullying.” Sugarcoated stories of school beauties eschewing macho players of the local football team in favor of defenseless geeks can only happen in Hollywood comedies. Real school life is more brutal and resembles a Darwinian jungle where only the strongest can adapt and survive.
Several months before Anna's tragedy, Polish television reported on several high school students who had first verbally abused their English teacher and then put a trashcan on his head. The entire episode was recorded on a cell phone and later widely distributed through video websites. The helpless pedagogue decided to take early retirement while the adolescent predators became celebrities at their school and in the Internet community, additionally bolstered by the fact that their deed went unpunished.
The reason why cyberbullying has become so popular is its relative anonymity. Hidden behind your cell phone or computer screen, you do not have to be a linebacker type of guy to shout vulgar abuses and throw virtual punches at your enemies. Wired Kids, Inc. - a U.S. non-governmental organization with the aim of protecting children and adolescents from Internet-related abuses – links the popularity of cyberbullying with a broader trend in the modern upbringing. Kids “do it for entertainment or because they are bored and have too much time on their hands and too many tech toys available to them.” With parents constantly at work, the only chance for socialization is chat rooms. And these, although designed for teens, are infested with curses and sexually explicit language that until now could only be heard in abandoned neighborhoods.
A police investigation, which was launched after Anna's parents were finally told what had happened, revealed that the perpetrators had molested Anna long before the class incident. The four boys, all in Anna's age, admitted that they had called her names, spanked her on the bottom, and simulated oral sex, forcing her head to their groins. Two of them said they had texted Anna on a number of occasions with sex propositions. In the movie they recorded, “about one fourth of her backside” was visible, Anna's cries mixed with the boy's shrieks of laughter. For them, the incident was just “great fun.”
There is no perfect way to protect your child from cyberbullying. In fact, someone who fell victim to cyber violence yesterday may abuse today or tomorrow. “Parents also need to understand that a child is just as likely to be a cyberbully as a victim of cyberbullying and often go back and forth between the two roles during one incident. They may not even realize that they are seen as a cyberbully,” says www.stopcyberbullying.org, a website sponsored by Wired Kids, Inc. Parents and teachers, especially older ones, often do not understand modern technology and find it hard to follow their children or students' online activities – let alone prevent them if they lead to crime. We are all aware of the importance of warning our youth against online pedophiles, but we forget to warn them against their own peers. “Children have killed each other and committed suicide after having been involved in a cyberbullying incident.”
The day when Anna's was stripped and publicly disgraced was her last at school. “Everyone was laughing; it all was great fun,” remembered a boy who witnessed the entire episode. He looked very uncomfortable in a black suit that his parents told him to wear to Anna's funeral.
She hung herself in her room when the disgraceful video had been published on the Internet.
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