"… You are a bad person and everybody hates you. ... The world would be a better place without you."<sup>1 This was the last of many cruel, demeaning messages Megan Meier received on October 16, 2006, from a teenage boy she had recently become "friends" with on MySpace. Megan, like countless other teenagers, was a victim of virtual bullying, also known as cyberbullying.
Bullying Defined and Assessed
Bullying is repeated, hostile behavior toward a specific individual or individuals, often because of their unique qualities, characteristics or behaviors. Its purpose is to isolate and exclude in order to dominate, exercise power and maintain control. A bully is often motivated by fear and a sense of insecurity or inferiority. Thousands of children in the United States are bullied each week, and the emotional damage they sustain can impact them for their entire lives. The most comprehensive nationwide study of bullying ever conducted – involving more than 15,000 students in grades 6 through 10 – found that over 24% of the students had been bullied during the school year. Additionally, 8% of those students endured bullying on a weekly basis.<sup>2
Megan was almost 14 years old and planning her upcoming birthday party. She was dealing with the changes and challenges that afflict most teenage girls ... self-esteem issues, roller coaster friendships and concerns with weight and boys. Like many teenagers, Megan communicated and developed friendships through social media. MySpace was popular among her friends, and when a "cute" 16-year-old named Josh Evans flashed a smile across her computer screen and showed interest in her, she was elated.
The Scope of Cyberbullying
According to a recent study, 88% of teens on social media have observed cruel, hateful or derogatory messages while 15% have themselves been the target of online cruelty.<sup>3
Cyberbullying occurs when electronic means – e-mail, texts, social media, etc. – are used intentionally to harass, intimidate, shame and hurt others. The digital world provides bullies with an easy, ever-present weapon for spreading painful messages ... almost effortlessly reaching a multiplied audience each time the message is shared.<sup>4
Cyberbullying Can Cause Fatal Damage
For six weeks Megan and Josh continued an online flirtation through messages. Meanwhile, Megan's parents kept a close watch on their daughter's online activities. They continually monitored Megan's account and communications, knew her password and permitted her to accept the friend request from Josh.
Then suddenly Megan's friendship with Josh began to unravel rapidly. Josh sent her a message that he no longer wanted to be her friend. He heard that she was mean!
Josh's critical message sparked a barrage of crude, demeaning posts: "Megan Meier is a slut." "Megan Meier is fat." Megan responded angrily, and when her mom intervened and made her sign off, Megan ran to her room sobbing.
Twenty minutes later when Tina Meier entered her daughter's room, she encountered tragedy beyond her worst fears. Megan had hung herself in the closet.
What Differentiates Bullying
Sometimes confusion exists over what constitutes bullying. Bullying is often underreported because victims are reluctant to discuss the issue with school officials or parents. Bullied students may withdraw because they feel powerless to confront their bully. They often fear further retribution and condemnation from peers if they expose the bully to adults. Likewise, they can also feel hopeless and that the abuse will never end.
While children are often bullied because they are perceived to be "different," bullying is a complex problem that is unlike "normal" relational conflict. In most conflict, both the involved parties hold a measure of power. However, with bullying, there is an imbalance of power, meaning one person or group of people hold all the power. The bully uses that power to demean and exclude others. Bullying is difficult to resolve, and young people can rarely overcome it on their own.
The Truth About Josh Evans
The jarring fact about Josh Evans – the "cute" teenager who first wooed Megan, and then wounded her – is that he actually never existed. After Megan had a falling-out with a neighborhood girl down the street, this teen neighbor's mother (with the aid of her daughter and a family employee) literally created the fictitious profile of Josh Evans, complete with false pictures.
The deceptive mother connived to gain Megan's confidence in an effort to discover if Megan had said anything negative about her own daughter, but also to cause her mental duress. Then the deceiver covertly gave the profile password to her daughter's friends and encouraged them to send malicious messages to Megan. These proved to be among the final messages she received. Initially, this calloused parent was convicted by a jury on three misdemeanor charges of unauthorized computer access; however, a federal judge overturned the verdicts and acquitted her.
You, Your Child and Social Media
In 2011, 95% of all American teens used the Internet and 80% of those teens maintained a presence on social media.<sup>5 Increasingly, our lives and friendships seemingly develop as much electronically on the Web as in person. What can you do to help your child avoid the pitfalls of social media?
• Purposefully connect with your child's online community.
• Determine whether your child's age and maturity merit involvement in social media.
• Develop guidelines and set limits with your child concerning the use of blogging and social media, including subject matter, tone and time devoted to a Web presence.
• Join and be active in monitoring your child's connections and communication techniques on Facebook, Twitter, message boards, blogs or other social media.
The Bible has much to say about misplaced motives and scheming speech. ...
"Whoever would love life and see good days must keep their tongue from evil
and their lips from deceitful speech. They must turn from evil and do good; they must seek peace and pursue it. For the eyes of the Lord are on the righteous and his ears are attentive to their prayer, but the face of the Lord is against those who do evil."
(1 Peter 3:10–12 NIV)
Megan Meier's life ended tragically the day she was scheduled to have her braces removed and three weeks before her 14th birthday. But her life didn't have to end this way. Meagan's story can provide parents a compelling motivation to become involved in the lives of their children and to be a consistent voice of kindness and support in their online community.
Stand against bullying so that the stories of other students will not end like Megan's.