Anonymous Bullying on Social Network Seeps Into Schools
Educators say Formspring has become a battlefield in cyberbulling wars
In waves throughout the school year, school counselor Julia V. Taylor has found herself consoling students who have been taunted—often anonymously—on the social-networking site Formspring.me.
“We say this happens outside of school,” said Ms. Taylor, of Apex High School in Raleigh, N.C. “If they’re in my office and they’re upset about it, it’s affecting school.”
The site’s creators took the popularity of online quizzes and created an entire social network devoted to asking questions, with the premise of getting to know one’s friends better, Formspring spokeswoman Sarahjane Sacchetti said. Created in November 2009, the site has attracted 23 million users, about a third of whom are ages 13 to 17, and who generate about 10 million posts a day.
But as with other social-networking spaces, some teenagers have taken advantage of Formspring’s anonymous features to insult and harass people in ways they might not in person. As a result, Formspring has become the newest battleground for school administrators and guidance counselors like Ms. Taylor who already feel they are losing the war against cyberbullying—and who are under greater pressure to address situations that begin off campus but end up affecting students at school.
When should schools intervene in instances of cyberbullying? It depends. Any school can counsel students who may be victims or perpetrators of cyberbullying. But disciplining the students at fault is more complicated, says Jill Joline Myers, an associate professor of criminal procedure and civil liability for law enforcement at Western Illinois University, in Macomb, who co-wrote Responding to Cyber Bullying: An Action Tool for School Leaders (Corwin, 2011). Some examples from the book:
In a 2009 case, J.C. v. Beverly Hills Unified School District, a federal district court in California found that a YouTube video calling an 8th grade classmate “spoiled,” “a slut,” and “the ugliest piece of shit I’ve ever seen in my whole life” was not a true threat, and that J.C. shouldn’t have been suspended for two days following her actions. The posting also did not forecast a substantial disruption to schooling, the court said, although the video got more than 90 hits, students could access it from their cellphones, and the victim required counseling and did not want to attend class.
However, in another 2009 case, Doninger v. Niehoff, a high school was found not to have violated the First Amendment rights of a student council member who protested the rescheduling of a council event. The student had posted a vulgar message about the cancellation on a blog, encouraging others to voice outrage about the change. Her entry triggered a deluge of emails and phone calls. The principal barred the student from running for senior-class secretary. A federal district court in Connecticut said the student’s post had created a risk of substantial disruption, and that the school had a right to remove her from an extracurricular leadership position, which was viewed as a privilege.
In the 2002 case of Mahaffey v. Aldrich, a student contributed to a website that was created by another student. His “Satan’s web page” included a list of “people I wish would die” with its “Satan’s mission for you this week.” The missions included “stab[bing] someone for no reason.” Both the police and the school became involved when a parent reported the site to them. The principal initially recommended expulsion, but then retracted that decision and allowed the student to return to school. A federal district court in Michigan ruled in favor of the student and held that the school had violated the student’s First Amendment rights. Why? The school couldn’t prove a substantial disruption at the school, according to the court.
In the 2000 case of Emmett v. Kent School District 415, a high school student created a website at home that contained mock obituaries of two of his friends and invited people to vote on who would “die next.” The site stemmed from a class creativewriting assignment in which students had to write their own obituaries. As a result of the site, the student was first placed on emergency expulsion, which was retracted and modified to a five-day suspension. A federal district court in Washington state said school officials should not have reacted the way they did. It ruled that schools may not punish off-campus, nonschool-sponsored speech, noting that there was no proof that the website had disrupted the educational process, and that “undifferentiated fears” of disruption are not enough to justify abridging a student’s First Amendment rights. The court also said the website was not a true threat of harm to students because it was taken as a joke.
“It’s the online version of truth or dare—without the dare,” Ms. Taylor said.
Replying to Questions
An individual’s Formspring page is simply a string of answers to questions, which may come from a friend or from someone they’ve never met. What makes the site different from some other social networks is that users can post questions without revealing their identities.
An individual profile reads like an interview. The user can choose which questions to respond to, and those questions are private until they are answered. Users can also choose whether to accept questions from people who hide their names.
“Some of the teens were misusing the hide-my-name functionality, thinking they could say anything to each other,” Ms. Sacchetti said. Some have been labeled gay by their tormentors. Others have been called ugly, fat, stupid, or worse. They have been told not to show up at school, to die, or to kill themselves. The mother of a Canadian teenager said taunts on Formspring, including at least one that suggested the girl kill herself, contributed to her 15-year-old daughter’s suicide in January.
Even if students have been burned, they often don’t have the willpower to disconnect from the website that was the source of the insults.
“It’s the reality-TV fad: You want to be where the action is,” said Justin W. Patchin, an associate professor at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire and one of the co-founders of the Cyberbullying Research Center, whose research focuses on how adolescents use and misuse technology. “I’ve heard other students tell me they feel it’s safer to be on these sites with their bullies. They can see what they’re saying about them and maybe win them over. From the logic of a teenager, it makes sense.”
Or, as Ms. Taylor put it, “It’s a drug. It’s like online crack.”
But Ms. Sacchetti said that, in practice, most of the questions asked on Formspring, about 75 percent, are done with users’ names attached. And if users get questions they don’t like, the questions are private and can be deleted, and the user can also block a person from asking any more questions.
While counselors, including Ms. Taylor, hate the anonymous options on Formspring, Sacchetti said the ability to cloak one’s identity can prove useful in some situations. For example, students can ask colleges questions about the admissions process that they might be otherwise too timid to ask.
The challenge for educators is that Formspring’s growing popularity comes as federal officials ratchet up pressure on school officials to address bullying of all kinds among students. Late last year, the U.S. Department of Education sent school districts letters that said the districts could be violating students’ civil rights if they don’t address bullying they know about, or reasonably should have known about.
The Education Department expanded on that directive last month, in a letter to the National School Boards Association, which had asked, among other things, how schools can address online harassment that begins off campus and discipline those responsible. In its response, the Education Department said the objective isn’t always discipline—which could violate a student’s First Amendment right to freedom of speech. Schools can instead counsel both the victim and the aggressor, have schoolwide discussions about appropriate behavior online, and teach students about civil rights and tolerance, the response said.
“I think that the whole confusion over whether or not schools get involved has to do with the unresolved question of when a school is able to discipline a child for off-campus speech,” said Elizabeth Englander, the director of the Massachusetts Aggression Reduction Center at Bridgewater State University. “There are many, many things [schools] can do besides disciplining the cyberbully. They need to be involved in the education issue. Their responsibility is to help children who are being traumatized and educate children who are engaging in risky behavior.”
She said schools can counsel victims and talk with students accused or responsible for bullying, even if the acts happened off campus.
The conversation could go something like this, she said: “Let’s have a talk. We’re not here to discipline you. We’re here to tell you that we’re concerned you could potentially be doing something that’s illegal.”
Formspring reminds Jill Joline Myers of the now-defunct website JuicyCampus, which allowed college students to post gossip anonymously. Ms. Myers is an associate professor at Western Illinois University, in Macomb, who co-wrote Responding to Cyber Bullying: An Action Tool for School Leaders and teaches criminal procedure and civil liability for law enforcement.
In training sessions with school administrators, she emphasizes that they should limit discipline for cyberbullying to incidents that result in a “substantial disruption” at school.
For its part, Formspring cooperates with schools and police when reports come in about threatening posts, although Ms. Sacchetti said “it’s rare that the threat is real.” The site can ban people who abuse the service. “People simply need to report it to us,” she said.
But that process can be slow, in part because the size of Formspring’s staff hasn’t kept up with its popularity. The site has just a few people in its complaint department, said Karthik Dinakar a research assistant in the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Media Laboratory, which is part of a recently formed partnership with Formspring aimed at combating bullying on the site. Mr. Dinakar said the work would use artificial-intelligence technology to help filter posts the way current spam filters trap vulgar or scam emails, but the software would go further.
“We would create a computer database of about a million statements of common knowledge: You sit in a chair. You drink water from a cup,” said Henry Lieberman, a principal research scientist in the lab. This “common sense” database could help determine if a comment is derogatory. For example, a comment about someone eating six hamburgers, which would be unlikely, might be an insult implying someone is fat.
In addition, the team is working on a system that could flag or inform a user that a statement that person is posting may be perceived as mean, said Birago Jones, an MIT research assistant also working on the project. The user might be informed about how many people in the network are going to see the comment and how quickly it could spread. That might trigger the person writing the post to think twice.
At the White House conference on bullying where the partnership between MIT and Formspring was announced last month, the discussion centered on what the rules should be for students using social networks and how to deal with cyberbullying after the fact, Mr. Lieberman said
“They were all treating the software as if it was some fixed thing no one could change. We were astonished” that no one was considering technological cyberbullying solutions, he said. “There’s a lot you can do that could help the problem.”
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