Earlier this summer, Elizabeth Englander, the psychologist and founder of an anti-bullying organization, took questions from online readers of the New York Times about how best to prevent bullying at school or cyberstalking of children anywhere.
“How can I best prepare my middle school daughter and myself for the possibility of cyberbullying in the coming years?” one parent asked. “I am wondering what the advice would be on when children should be allowed use of cellphones or access to social networking sites, since it seems to the norm for social interaction these days.”
- Cyberbullying: A Guide for Parents
- Bullying Prevention: Quick Guide
- Cyberbullying and Online Teens: The 2007 Study
Englander’s answer: “It’s a great idea to think about cyberbullying before it happens. During these discussions, what should you say? Ask your children about cyberbullying. Ask them what they’ve heard about it and if they know anything about it or any kids it has happened to. Tell them what you know and discuss with them what the family rules should be about cyber-related behaviors. Ask them how they might avoid cyberbullying and, if it does happen, how they should react. Our Web site, at www.MARCcenter.org, has free guides that can help you with this discussion with your children.”
Sometimes a brochure isn’t enough.
Last winter Flagler County Sheriff Don Fleming was at the state sheriffs’ convention when he spied computer program that caught his attention. Computer Cop is one of the many internet-monitoring programs that can be installed on any computer to keep track of the user’s trail–emails, chatting, images downloaded, chats, web histories. The program also enables flagging up to 2,000 words (be it “sex,” “naked,” “date,” “MSNBC,” “Glenn Beck” or any number of high-temperature words), so that whenever one of those words is keyed in or received by the user, an alert is generated–by email, to a parent’s computer.
The program retails for $36 at the company’s website. According to the manufacturer, many police and sheriff’s agencies distribute it, free, to parents as part of their outreach programs. In Florida, the Citrus, Clay and Dade sheriff’s offices distribute it, as does the Davie Police Department.
Fleming decided to do likewise. This week, he put up 3,000 copies of the program for free distribution from the sheriff’s office on Justice Lane in Bunnell. It’ll cost the sheriff’s office more than $100,000.
“I bought them with drug money,” Fleming said in an interview this afternoon, referring to the fund where money and assets seized from people convicted of drug crimes is deposited. The money can be used for various crime-prevention measures (though it’s not clear when that particular expenditure was approved by the County Commission).
“They’re running like hot cakes to tell you the truth,” Fleming said. “The way they’re going I think they’re going to go pretty quick, and if I can I’ll but some more again.”
The give-away is particularly timely in light of a recent surge, at least one publicly perceived as such, in cases of cyber-bullying, some of them fatal. The suicide of Tyler Clemente, a promising violinist and college student at Rutgers University who jumped from the Washington Bridge in New York after he was outed as gay in an internet streaming video by his roommate, prompted Ellen DeGeneres to record an appeal against bullying and bigotry. “Something must be done,” she said. “This month alone there have been a shocking number of news stories about teens who have been teased and bullied and then committed suicide”: 13-year-old Seth Walsh in Tehachapi, Calif.; 13-year-old Asher Brown in Texas; and 15-year-old Billy Lucas in Indiana. Here’s what all three had in common, beside bigoted bullies on their case: they were harassed for being gay. Lucas and Walsh hanged themselves. Brown shot himself.
“This needs to be a wake-up call to everyone that teenage bullying and teasing is an epidemic in this country and the death rate is climbing,” DeGeneres says. “One life lost in this senseless way is tragic. Four lives lost is a crisis. And these are just the stories we hear about. How many other teens have we lost, how many others are suffering in silence? Being a teenager and figuring out who you are is hard enough without someone attacking you.”
DeGeneres was not focused on cyberbullying in particular, but on the sort of prejudice that led the boys to be harassed, attacked and bullied–an enduring prejudice that requires far more than internet technology to detect or demolish. When even churches reinforce such prejudices by associating homosexuality with sin instead of speaking against discrimination of any kind, the Sunday and Wednesday pulpit, too, can be the bully.
The Computer Cop software is not fail-safe. While it garners some raves from consumer reviewers of one version of the product at Amazon, it also draws criticism. “Computer Cop is very good as a way of neatly viewing any picture stored on your computer, but as an internet monitoring program it doesn’t work at all. I’ve gone to hundreds of sites over the past little while, but when I scanned the computer with Computer Cop Cop, there were only three pictures from the internet in the list … and perhaps I had downloaded those, I’m not sure,” one critic wrote. “Oh, and the customer support is pretty lousy.” Another reviewer called it “a blessing in disguise” for detecting matters the reviewer’s daughter was not supposed to be viewing.
To get a copy, parents or guardians can go to the sheriff’s website for a brief video on the program or a powerpoint presentation about cyber-bullying, though some of the evidence presented is more inflammatory and sensational than verified, including the often-repeated claim that one in five youths say they’ve received a sexual approach or solicitation online: that may be true, but the overwhelming majority of those approaches and solicitations are between friends or schoolmates, who now communicate electronically as a norm. The presentation also notes that “A recent study” found that one-third of those interviewed reported being a victim of cyber-bullying, but doesn’t cite the source.
The actual study, conducted in 2007 by the Pew Internet & American Life Project, first specifies that those 32 percent of teens say “they have been targets of a range of annoying and potentially menacing online activities,” not outright cyberbullying. The study then breaks down the figure into component parts: 15 percent of teens reported having private material, be it an instant message, a text or an email, forwarded without their permission; 13 percent had received a threatening message; 13 percent had spread a rumor about them online; and 6 percent had someone post an embarrassing picture of them online without permission. The numbers present a more nuanced than sensational picture of the problem–which unquestionably exists, but not necessarily to the sometimes hysterical degree that it is being portrayed in the media. (See the full study.)
Internet monitoring software also raises issues about snooping in the house, but, as The Times reported as far back as 2006, “attitudes about prying are changing, according to parenting authorities, who argue that it is an adult’s responsibility to check on what children do online and does not violate a child’s right to privacy. ‘The balance is shifting,’ said David Walsh, a psychologist and the founder of the National Institute on Media and the Family, which studies the impact of electronic media on families. A couple of years ago parents worried about violating their children’s trust, he said. ”Now the worry is, ‘How do I keep my kids out of trouble?'”
Those attitudes have shifted further toward oversight and prevention rather than privacy protection–within the home and beyond it.
The Computer Cop software is available in Flagler County from at the Sheriff’s Operations Center in Bunnell, the Robert E. McCarthy substation in Palm Coast and through the Sheriff’s School Resource Deputies. “We would prefer to give it to the younger kids, grammar school and middle school but if parents wanted them for their high school kids we’ll give it to them also,” Fleming said. “These are the things that are out there. This is just another tool that we can use to stay on top of the game.”
Fleming was also on Orlando’s Channel 35 in a story on the software giveaway: