Essential Reading: “On Facebook, you can be as mean as you want.”

I realize not everyone receives The New York Times. Or if you’re like me, sometimes you don’t get around to reading it thoroughly. So I refer readers to this long, thoughtful, well-researched article from June 27, 2010. It explores the growing phenomenon of cyberbullying, it’s impact on middle school students, and the overall helplessness of school officials to address it fully. The writer, Jan Hoffman, does an excellent job in painting a devastating portrait of how texting and social network sites have changed the landscape of bullying in today’s world.

It’s not easy being a kid today.

For the full article, click here: “Online Bullies Pull Schools Into the Fray.” Here’s the opening few paragraphs of the lengthy article:

The girl’s parents, wild with outrage and fear, showed the principal the text messages: a dozen shocking, sexually explicit threats, sent to their daughter the previous Saturday night from the cellphone of a 12-year-old boy. Both children were sixth graders at Benjamin Franklin Middle School in Ridgewood, N.J.

Punish him, insisted the parents.

“I said, ‘This occurred out of school, on a weekend,’ ” recalled the principal, Tony Orsini. “We can’t discipline him.”

Suzanne DeChillo/The New York Times

Later in the same article, a guidance counselor describes one aspect of middle school misery:

Meredith Wearley, Benjamin Franklin’s seventh-grade guidance counselor, was overwhelmed this spring by dramas created on the Web: The text spats that zapped new best friendships; secrets told in confidence, then broadcast on Facebook; bullied girls and boys, retaliating online.

“In seventh grade, the girls are trying to figure out where they fit in,” Mrs. Wearley said. “They have found friends but they keep regrouping. And the technology makes it harder for them to understand what’s a real friendship.”

Because students prefer to use their phones for texting rather than talking, Mrs. Wearley added, they often miss cues about tone of voice. Misunderstandings proliferate: a crass joke can read as a withering attack; did that text have a buried subtext?

The girls come into her office, depressed, weeping, astonished, betrayed.

“A girl will get mad because her friend was friends with another girl,” Mrs. Wearley said.

They show Mrs. Wearley reams of texts, the nastiness accelerating precipitously. “I’ve had to bring down five girls to my office to sort things out,” she said. “It’s middle school.”

Recently, between classes, several eighth-grade girls from Benjamin Franklin reflected about their cyberdramas:

“We had so many fights in seventh grade,” one girl said. “None of them were face-to-face. We were too afraid. Besides, it’s easier to say ‘sorry’ over a text.”

Another concurred. “It’s easier to fight online, because you feel more brave and in control,” she said. “On Facebook, you can be as mean as you want.”

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