Cyberbullying made headlines again recently when parents filed suit over a Los Altos teen who hanged herself after three high school boys allegedly assaulted her and texted or distributed an inappropriate photo of her.
The case is similar to the story of a Halifax, Nova Scotia girl, 15, who hanged herself after an alleged gang rape and online bullying.
Cyberbullying is not unlike the bullying of preceding generations, according to Sacramento County sheriff's Detective Sean Smith, a member of the Sacramento Valley Hi-Tech Crimes Task Force. But it has the added dimension of using the Internet to embarrass, intimidate or harass. Because photos linked to such cases can easily go viral, the injury to a victim's self-esteem has the potential to be much more devastating, he said.
Are these crimes happening here?
I've been with the Hi-Tech Crimes Task Force for seven years. I have investigated child exploitation and child pornography. While we haven't had the high-profile cyberbullying cases here that we've seen across the country, I talk about these cases when I appear before students, parents and community groups.
What prompts a person to use the Internet to bully?
The advancement in technology may mean that a person who wouldn't normally approach a victim face-to-face can feel a little more anonymity, or hide behind a computer.
What laws are available to investigators to respond?
There's no criminal code for cyberbullying per se, but there have always been laws on stalking and harassment. Now those laws extend to crimes committed by electronic means, and that can include cyberbullying.
In addition, it's now a misdemeanor under the California Penal Code to impersonate another person online to make threats or be intimidating. And schools now can suspend students for bullying on social networking sites.
How is cyberbullying tackled locally?
A lot of the problems are handled at the school level. And therein lies another problem: You might have kids who cyberbully each other but not necessarily on school time or on school grounds. It's obviously affecting the child. A lot of campuses have school resource officers to help solve a problem. School districts do call us.
When you appear before parents, what do you say?
We tell parents, if you're going to allow your kids to have a social networking page, explain to them you want the password to the site, or 'friend' them from your own page so you know what's going on. Explain to them, even when they are young, the potential dangers of the Web.
Teach children to make strong passwords and not to share them with anybody. And remember that just because a kid has a Facebook page, that doesn't mean there's not more than one page in existence.
To interpret what's being posted on a page, it can help to visit the Internet dictionary, www.netlingo.com, which includes definitions of acronyms – what they stand for and how they are used.
How do kids respond to your presentations?
I'll talk about cyberbullying and the dangers of child predators, and even the younger kids will tell their own stories or talk about what happened to a friend.
They'll say, 'I was playing an online game and someone tried to chat with me and tried to get me to do stuff.'
How can students avoid problems?
One of the things we encourage is that if you're being cyberbullied, don't answer. They're looking to get a reaction out of you. Once it's done, report it to your school and your parents. If it persists, report it to the social networking site or, in the case of a text message, to the cell provider. See if the provider can block the number or text. And share your social networks only with people you know and trust. Don't make them open to the world.
On the whole, if you're not comfortable being on the 6 o'clock news or showing Mom and Dad, then you probably shouldn't do it.
How much are cellphones part of the problem?
With today's cellphone cameras, you have to imagine that anything you do is being filmed. Almost 100 percent of the time, you never know who's taking a picture and shooting video. With cellphones and cameras, the pictures are crystal clear and everything is instantaneous. It's not word of mouth.
Kids with the cameras should think about what they post or put out there. Once they hit the send button, there's no way to un-send it.