“Martin I just wanted to tell you felix and I think you’re dumm, stupid, fat, chuuuuubbby fat fatter fattest.” Insults like these are a part of everyday life for many primary and secondary school students in Germany. They are posted on the Internet for anyone to see. Students are increasingly using social networks such as SchülerVZ, Wer-Kennt-Wen, Schüler-CC, or Lokalisten to insult and belittle their fellow students with publicly readable comments.
While bullying among children and teens was long confined to the school itself and its surroundings, today’s school bullies use the new communications media as a platform for attacks on those perceived as weaker. Rumors are no longer scrawled on a piece of paper and passed from desk to desk, but instead are sent via cell phones; embarrassing photos are no longer posted on the blackboard, but rather on the Internet for all the world to see.
Psychologist Anja Schultze-Krumbholz is studying this relatively new form of aggression among schoolchildren as part of her doctoral research. Schultze-Krumbholz, a researcher within the Division of Developmental Science and Applied Developmental Psychology at Freie Universität Berlin, conducted a study in which she asked students of both sexes between the ages of 12 and 15 at various schools in Bremen and Berlin about their experiences with cyberbullying. “About one in every five young people was somehow involved with cyberbullying on a regular basis,” Schultze-Krumbholz explains.
“That’s a relatively high number – but congruent with the results we have seen in international studies.” According to surveys, 97 percent of all youth between the ages of 14 and 19 now use the Internet. Social networks are especially popular among children and youth. More than 70 percent have their own profile on one of the networks; there are 5.5 million students registered with the biggest provider, SchülerVZ, alone.
Deliberate taunting and humiliation of a fellow student using the new media follows a set of mechanisms all its own: Nasty comments are written repeatedly on the victims’ digital bulletin boards, videos turn up on the Web, or personal e-mail boxes are filled with threatening and insulting messages. Or the victims are excluded from discussions – by simply ignoring their written comments in forums or starting special groups specifically for digital harassment. The victim may have no access to these groups, but their names mean that their purpose is no secret: “Everyone who thinks Jenny F. is fat and stinks, join in.”
Although fists do not fly during Internet bullying, these kinds of taunting can hurt – and not only virtually. In 2009, two teenagers in England committed suicide after suffering massive bullying online. “When parents tell the children who are suffering from bullying, ‘just don’t turn on the computer, then you won’t have to read it,’ it’s no help,” explains Schultze-Krumbholz: Children, she says, make no distinction between social contact in real life and online.
In her study, the researcher also pursued the question of whether cyberbullying is a new phenomenon or just a continuation of schoolyard fighting by different means. After all, taunting and hurling of insults are not exactly new among schoolchildren. With that in mind, Schultze-Krumbholz tried to find out whether the same people were perpetrating both schoolyard and Internet bullying, and whether patterns of victimization and victimhood established in school persist in the virtual environment of the Internet.
“The results of our study show that many students who are involved in bullying in school are also involved in it online – as perpetrators and victims alike.” There are, she says, school bullies who simply keep bullying on the Internet, and children who are already harassed at school and remain the target of aggressive attacks on the Internet as well. But ten percent of those surveyed were not involved in these behaviors in school, but were involved in some kind of cyberbullying on the Internet. “It seems as if these children take advantage of the anonymous nature of the Internet and do and say things they would not dare to do or say in real life,” the psychologist says.
Among the victims, Schultze-Krumbholz says, the supposed anonymity leads to an openness that can be their downfall later on. “This group shows a completely different risk behavior on the Internet than in direct contact with their fellow students. In chat rooms, for example, or in forums, they reveal a lot about themselves, which makes them that much easier to attack.” This is where parental guidance is needed above all – but there is a yawning intergenerational gulf between parents and children when it comes to using the Internet: While children are “digital natives,” born into the Information Age, most people over 30 are “digital immigrants.” Today, children grow up amid the communications media of the Digital Age. By contrast, adults often have a hard time keeping up.
“Actually, parents need to warn their children more forcefully about the risks involved. The situation is similar with traffic: children and young people have to learn that from the parents first,” explains Schultze-Krumbholz. The difference between a crosswalk and cyberspace: On the Internet, even parents themselves often do not know what is risky for children. The fact that the study explored uncharted territory in researching the mechanisms of cyberbullying – tyrannizing others via the Internet – in Germany is something Schultze-Krumbholz views as symptomatic. “We were able to prove that the problem also exists in Germany. But awareness of the problem is not yet very well developed,” she says.
In the U.K., there have long been studies and initiatives aimed at providing children with effective protection from being tyrannized – whether on the schoolyard or on the Internet. In that country, Schultze-Krumbholz says, research projects also receive financial support from mobile phone carriers and Internet providers. “In Germany, it’s somewhat more difficult,” she says. But since she is addressing a societal problem and her study is garnering international attention and praise via the Internet, the researcher has reason for optimism: For the next stages in her work, she will receive financial support from the European Commission.