Police, parents and school officials have cited Ms. Todd’s case in saying they need to increase efforts – and possibly laws – against this sort of harassment, in which perpetrators target victims through cell phone text messaging, on Facebook, or in other neighborhoods of the virtual world. Meanwhile, social networking sites have hosted tens of thousands of comments decrying what many see as this overwhelming, negative phenomenon in the lives of today’s teenagers; the nasty comments on memorial pages set up for Todd seem to only reinforce the sense that cyberbullies are omnipresent.
It’s hard not to join in with the anger; to feel like there’s just something terribly wrong with society, teens and the Internet today.
But even in the face of horrible stories like this one, it’s important to step back.
While many studies have shown that a large number of teens experience cyberbullying, which the Pew Internet & American Life Project describes as online harassment that is repeated over time and involves a power imbalance between a perpetrator and a victim, most do not.
Research tends to put the number of teens who experience online harassment between 9 percent and 33 percent; much of the difference in those numbers comes from how research questions are asked and from the demographics of those interviewed. Most teens (67 percent), according to Pew’s own research, think bullying and harassment happen more often offline.
Moreover, there is a new trend among teens using the Internet, reports Justin Patchin, an associate professor at the University of Wisconsin-Eu Claire and co-director of the Cyberbullying Research Center. This, he writes, is the push to “Nice it Forward,” an effort to use social media to say nice things about other people.
While we often hear the grim stories of bullies setting up fake Facebook pages to humiliate or slam other people, those who Nice it Forward, Dr. Patchin writes, do just the opposite. They create or join Twitter handles where the entire purpose is to say random nice things about their school or classmates. Sometimes this is done to specifically counter nasty Internet sites; sometimes it is just, well, to be nice.
“I really love this,” he writes on the Cyberbullying Research Center website. Co-director Sameer Hinduja “and I have long advocated for getting students involved in activities to prevent bullying and for empowering teens to do their part to develop a positive climate at their school ... Teens from around the country are stepping up, even without the prodding of adults, to show their classmates that bullying is not cool.”
None of this, mind you, is meant to downplay the impact of cyber harassment. Unlike traditional bullying, cyber bullying and harassment can be extra problematic, some researchers say, because it follows children home. There’s no leaving the schoolyard behind when the cell phone text messages are coming at all hours, or when a teen is worried about what’s being posted to her Facebook page.
(One solution here, some advocates say, is to keep teens from Facebook and other social media sites that are more likely to perpetrate anonymous meanness. But easier said than done, say many parents.)
According to Pew’s research, 38 percent of older teens who are online report experiencing some sort of harassment; a good percentage of them (but far from the majority) report being “upset” or “extremely upset” by the experience.
Still, it's clear from study after study that cyber-meanness is not the norm.
As for Todd's case, it is too soon to know what actually happened. We understand from the video that she posted in September, in which she does not speak but holds up a number of cards with writing on them to tell her story, that she has had a terribly rough few years. Her troubles started, she said, when she was 12 years old and messing around with friends on a webcam, and agreed to flash a stranger who had flattered her. This person had stalked her ever since, trying to blackmail her and sending the picture to friends and relatives.
She had other troubles with classmates, and says that she struggled with anxiety, drugs, and alcohol. This is not atypical; although it may be hard to distinguish which factor came first, teens who are bullied also have higher levels of depression, psychological problems, substance abuse, and delinquency.
The lines here, then, between depression, cyber bullying, child abuse, harassment and drama are impossible to determine from afar. They’re probably incredibly difficult to untangle close up.
All we know for sure is that Todd’s story is horribly sad.
And whether her story is unusual or not, an example of cyber bullying or something else, we can only hope that it will inspire other teens to Nice it Forward.