Cyber-bullying: Abuse takes its toll on a new generation of American youth

By Sarah Yee
Northwest Asian Weekly

Photo by Johnny Bui/NWAW

The state of Washington presumes that children from age 8 to 11 cannot commit crimes.

Think again. On April 23, two sixth grade girls in the Issaquah School District were charged by King County Juvenile Court for cyber-stalking. They hacked into the Facebook account of Leslie Cote, a classmate and former friend. The girls posted sexually explicit pictures and, using Cote’s name, solicited boys for sex.

At both the community and national levels, cyber-bullying has become an alarming concern. In March, President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama held the first-ever conference regarding bullying prevention at the White House. During spring break for students in the Seattle School District, the Asian Counseling and Referral Service (ACRS) held an annual resource fair on sexual assault awareness. Cyber-bullying was a hot topic at both events.

“Maybe it is distributing a picture after a breakup. Guys, this tends to be you. Maybe it is sending a harassing or threatening text message. Girls, this is our area,” said Officer Stefanie Thomas, victim advocate for the Seattle Police Department’s Internet Crimes Against Children (ICAC) Task Force.

The ACRS outreach event targeted APA youths. In many Asian cultures, parents do not approve of their children dating during middle school or high school. Consequently, when APA teens are involved in violent relationships, they may be reluctant to open up to their parents. Thomas shared about how problems may get out of control in regard to electronic communication.

“How many of you guys are familiar with Phoebe Prince?” Thomas raised the question to the audience at the fair.

Last year, Prince, age 15, hung herself in a closet. She was the target of physical threats and cyber-bullying from six senior girls in her high school in Massachusetts. Prince was bullied because she started dating a senior as a freshman.

The threats, however, did not end at her death. “[Prince’s] friends created an RIP Facebook page to memorialize her. The same group of six girls went on that page and continued to call her a slut after she was already dead,” said Thomas.

“A lot of people would never go up, especially girls, to another girl, face-to-face. But when you get behind the keyboard, you get a little more colorful. The person is 10 miles away. It’s not as confrontational,” said Thomas.

Cyber-bullying in the Asian community

According to research done at the Cyber-bullying Research Center from 2007 to 2008, all races are vulnerable to cyber-bullying. Researchers went to a large school district in the southern United States and surveyed middle school students in 37 different schools. The results suggested that white students are most likely than students of other ethnicities to report lifetime experiences, but victims or offenders of cyber-bullying are evenly represented across all races.

“When [cyber-bullying] happens, the Asian community tends to not be familiar with the criminal justice system,” said Alan Lai, Crimes Victim Project director at the Chinese Information and Service Center (CISC).

In the state of Washington, a person is guilty of “cyberstalking” if he or she has acted with the intent to harass, intimidate, torment, or embarrass any other person through electronic communication. The sentence could be up to 365 days in King County jail.

“Children might be afraid to report. Also, parents are not computer savvy. They don’t know the magnitude of the problem,” said Lai.

When cyber-bullying involves languages other than English, the problems become more complicated for law enforcement. For example, Lai said that Chinese youths sometimes use colloquial Chinese expressions to intimidate their peers.

“When reported to the police, it may be cumbersome, and makes it harder for investigation. It doesn’t just happen in the Chinese population. If they are Koreans, they can be texting each other in Korean,” said Lai.

The investigations may last for months since police have to involve interpreters and language lines for the investigations. Lai also observed that certain elements in the Asian culture prevent cyber-bully reports from surfacing.

“In general, Asians are affected by the Buddhism notion. They hope that disagreements would just go away. In Chinese culture, there is also a saying that ‘as long as I live, I don’t want to set foot in the government office,’ ” said Lai.

At times, youths worry about the degree of discipline.

“To a lot of youths, text messaging and e-mailing are something dear to their heart. They do that all the time. They fear that their parents might take [the privilege] away,” said Lai.

There is also a lack of education on the parents’ end. Lai advised, “Parents need to be supportive. It is important for them to not be judgmental. Children should reiterate [the problem] to their parents.

Otherwise, things get out of hand. Some families choose to physically move to a different area [to escape the problem]. It doesn’t help cyber-bullying.”

Interpersonal struggles

One Asian youth in Seattle spoke anonymously about her cyber-bullying experience with a classmate.

“During high school, I had a classmate. She used to be nicer, but because she wanted to be more popular, she started to talk behind people’s backs, which you shouldn’t do. Her [lunch] table went from 20 people to like two people.”

“She liked one of the friends in my group. [Because all are] friends, I decided to add her on Facebook. And then she messaged me. It started with, “Don’t add me, I’ll never be your friend.”

The message was a long paragraph containing threatening words.

“Yeah, I told my friends. They said they knew it was going to happen. She’s a bully. I heard that when she gets bad grades, her dad beats her with a clothes hanger. After [being] beaten by her dad, she would cry at home. She gets into fights at school, too. Maybe she takes her stress out on people.”

At the ACRS resource fair, Thomas reminded the youths that they have to be wise in making friends.

“There’s not, in the dictionary, this little asterisk that says ‘Facebook friend.’ You have to ask yourself, ‘How do I know them?’ There are people in real life who are friends, people who are acquaintances, people who you don’t know, [and] people you don’t care for,” said Thomas.

Some friends may not be trustworthy.

“We’re working on five cases right now. These young women took inappropriate pictures of themselves when they were in high school. The pictures are now on the Internet. What do they want? They want us to take them down, because they go get a job and they get Googled, and guess what pops up? Is it our responsibility to force those web sites to take them down when they took those pictures willingly? No, we don’t have the time to do that. We don’t have the resources. Are the web sites required to take them down? Not always,” said Thomas.

Lasting damage and steps toward a solution

Harm may not be immediate, but it may become evident years down the road.

“Five years from now, I’m finding too many girls in that situation, [saying] please help me,” said Thomas.

Lai gives the following advice to cyber-bullying victims, “First step is to tell [the offender], ‘I don’t like it, and I feel offended.’ Deal with it before it gets worse. Deal with it in a firm manner.”

Documentation is also important in order for law enforcement to intervene in an effective manner.

“You need to record the frequency [of the messages or offenses], when they happened, and how you felt at the time. It doesn’t work if you are reading the same message and try to recall how you felt about it a week ago,” said Lai. ♦

If you or someone you know is a victim of cyber-bullying, contact Stefanie Thomas at 206-684-4732, stefanie.thomas@seattle.gov, or Alan Lai at 206-624-5633, alanl@cisc-seattle.org.

Sarah Yee can be reached at info@nwasianweekly.com.

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