March 30, 2008
STUTTGART, Germany — Last year, Sarah Moritz-Mayer was persuaded by a friend to get her own MySpace page.
“I didn’t exactly ask to get it,” said Sarah, 13, whose friend walked her through the process.
Pretty soon, Sarah was being called names online — “ugly” and “beaver” because of her big smile. Some nastier stuff, too. The cyber-bullies had struck.
Sarah said she became scorned by some of her peers. Kids on the school bus would cheer when she got off. Someone stole her new jacket.
Then Sarah got into more trouble. Her parents found out about the MySpace page.
They simply checked the Web sites visited on the family computer.
“To see the kind of language these kids are using among themselves on the Internet, and the pictures that are posted of 12-year-olds,” exclaimed Corinna Mayer, Sarah’s mother. “As a parent, the Internet almost scares me more than letting my daughter walk down the street.”
Next month, Patch High School in Stuttgart is holding three assemblies in which ninth-graders will be told about the dangers of bad online behavior. An Army criminal investigator will be leading the discussion. Other Department of Defense Dependent Schools in Europe conduct their own forums.
Cyber-bullying — one child attacking another through the Internet, text messages or other interactive technology — is not a chronic problem for U.S. military dependents in Europe, as far as school officials know.
No cases have been reported up to the headquarters of DODDS-Europe, according to spokeswoman Margret Menzies.
“What that tells us is that it is not a bad-enough problem so that the [school] principals are coming back to us at the European office,” Menzies said.
Marijka Nakoneczny and Ryan Ramirez said they had never heard the term “cyber-bullying,” but the two 18-year-olds said they’ve witnessed it.
A high-school-aged girl in Stuttgart had a derogatory label pasted next to her name on a locally frequented MySpace page. Many saw the posting.
“Everyone knows [the victim],” Ramirez said. “She was hurt. She was mad, too.”
Computer networks in European schools are filtered by Gaggle.net, a system that shields users from profanity, pornography, violence and other content, according to Patrick Ridge, an educational technologist with DODDS-Europe.
Students can’t visit sites such as MySpace or Facebook while at school or use e-mail sites such as Hotmail and Yahoo. But how they use the Internet away from school is another matter, he said.
“That’s really their world, and it is continuing to play a bigger role,” Ridge said. “We need to incorporate those things into their educational environment so they … understand the implications.”
A notorious 2006 case of cyber-bullying involved 13-year-old Megan Meier of Dardenne Prairie, Mo.
Megan, a chubby girl who wore braces, believed she had found a boyfriend through MySpace, a 16-year-old named Josh. Through online exchanges, Josh worked his way into Megan’s heart.
Then Josh suddenly turned vicious and hurtful, ultimately writing to Megan that “the world would be a better place without you.”
“Josh” turned out to be acquaintances of Megan’s who were playing a trick on her. But Megan committed suicide before she found out about the hoax.
No one was charged in the case, prosecutors said, because no law applied. However, this month in neighboring Illinois a state Senate panel forwarded a bill that would make it a crime to use e-mail or Web sites for the purpose of repeatedly “tormenting or terrorizing” a specific person, according to the Chicago Tribune.
Under the proposal, violators could be jailed for one year on their first offense, with harsher penalties for a second offense and for adults convicted of cyber-bullying minors.
The emotions a teen can feel for someone met through the Internet can be just as exhilarating — or heartbreaking — as those felt for someone met face to face, according to Nakoneczny and Ramirez. For someone socially challenged or not part of the “in crowd,” making friends and sharing intimacies might be easier through the Internet.
“With the Internet, it’s possible to (know) somebody really personally, somebody they can confide in if they don’t have that in real life,” Nakoneczny said.
“Basically, you’re living a second life through the Internet,” Ramirez added.
That second life might not be so anonymous in a small community. Almost everyone 16-year-old Nicole Cruz knows has a MySpace page.
“It’s like if they [don’t], they’re weird because everyone else has one,” she said.
A MySpace page typically has photos of its owner and his or her friends, and lists hobbies, favorite music and TV shows. Nicole said she didn’t know anyone who had been victimized by cyber-bullies, but added that interaction on the personal pages can get quite personal and flirty.
“[Online visitors] will sweet-talk you, say ‘you’re so beautiful’ or tell you how pretty you look in your picture,” Nicole said. “On their profile they’ll write things like, ‘I can’t live without you.’ You don’t know whether to believe them or not because you can’t see their face when they say it.”
Nicole’s mother, Nilda Lopez, has her own page on the competing network, Facebook. She said she uses it to make contact with long-lost friends.
Lopez said she trusts her daughter but also doesn’t hesitate to stick her nose in Nicole’s business. “When I say, ‘Open your MySpace and let me see your e-mails,’ she’ll do it right away,” Lopez said.
“I can’t hide anything from my mom,” Nicole said. “She has that mom-power.”
MySpace, launched in 2003, has about 109 million accounts worldwide, according to the Washington Post, citing Comscore, a Reston, Va.-based researcher. Facebook has about 100 million.
For some young people, that represents a lot of different ways to get into trouble.
Sarah said her parents took away her Internet privileges for a time, but after she learned her lesson she was allowed to create a new MySpace page — a private page, as opposed to her previous page that was open to the public.
She wished she would have been upfront with her parents from the start.
“I was kind of scared to say anything because of the way [peers] were treating me,” Sarah said. “If [the peers] found out, they might have ganged up on me, not necessarily physically but emotionally.
“When [my parents] found out about my MySpace site, I told them everything. I felt kind of better just to get it out.”