The Megan Meier tragedy has been on my mind a lot lately. Yesterday I took an informal poll of some upper elementary and high school students, hoping to get a sense of their technology use and their awareness of how to be safe online.
Approximately five of forty 5th and 6th graders said they had their own Myspace or Facebook accounts. A few boys said they occasionally posted messages using another person's log-in. When I reminded them that the legal age for signing up for these services is 14 (the oldest of them were 12 years old), they laughed and said that they just clicked on whatever birth year would allow them to join. Many more of them had webkinz virtual pets. The webkinz owners enjoyed the online interaction and didn't seem bothered by the limited messaging that the official site allows.
It was quite a different story with my high school Current Events students. The boys (our sole female class member was absent) estimated that 2/3 of the middle school and high school population belongs to Myspace or Facebook. They seemed to feel reasonably safe online and accept the fact that our school blocks all social networking and most interactive sites.
Since the Meier case is very much in the news lately, I had my class watch an interview with Megan's parents and read some tips from the Department of Homeland Security on Dealing with Cyberbullies. The students' most interesting reactions were in response to some short YouTube clips, prepared by the non-profit Ad Council.
The first video, Cyberbullying Talent Show featured a fresh-faced little girl standing in front of a school assembly, sweetly listing the things wrong with a classmate ("Her dad doesn't work, they have no money, that's why she wears that nasty pink sweater"). In Cyberbullying Kitchen a similar scenario unfolds as one teenager calmly tells her "friend" (ironically named Megan) that "you are a tramp" and the "most desperate girl [he] knows - besides your Mom". The idea being presented in both vignettes was "If you wouldn't say it in person, why say it online?"
My students seemed shocked by the comments, even though their own language occasionally strays from the "school appropriate". Perhaps they hold girls to a different code of behavior, or perhaps hearing such insults being used in front of a teacher made them uncomfortable. The point that words written online can be just as hurtful as words spoken aloud was well made and well taken.
Although I had heard of a girl being harassed online by her classmates last year, none of the boys said they had ever felt uncomfortable or threatened online. I asked them to write their reaction to the Megan Meier case, and these are some of their responses:
"I think that it's very sad. If people weren't such bullies, she'd probably still be alive, to live her life."
"Cyberbullying is a problem. I think it needs to be dealt with. I am not scared by cyberbullying because I think cyberbullies are little woosies trying to act tough on the internet."
"I think that the whole Megan Meier case is just sad. I think that she should have alerted somebody about it. She shouldn't have done what she did. [committed suicide] They should definitely start making laws concerning Myspace, chat rooms, and other stuff like that."
"I have never been bullied or bullied anyone. It is wrong and should be stopped...There should be certain rules and if they're broken, certain punishments should be set up. It is wrong..."
"I think it should be monitored on Myspace and others [sites]. I think the people [who set up the fake "Josh" account] should be prosecuted."
"I think that this case is very sad. I wish that someone could have helped this girl or that she could have figured out what was really going on."
"Cyberbullying is a problem. Megan Meier should not have died."
"Any mans death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee." -John Donne
"Saddness" by RadoB