School can be an unpleasant experience when a bully embarrasses, harasses or intimidates a classmate. But today, this is often done without any personal interaction, where online social networks can be used to destroy reputations.
Responding to this new danger, the 112th Precinct Community Council used this year’s essay contest to address cyberbullying, inviting local students from grades 4 through 12 to submit essays on the topic.
“The message is that we are going to be more aware on the computer,” Patrol Borough Queens North commander Diana Pizzuti said. “Two of the winners handwrote their essays, which is interesting for a topic like cyberbullying.”
According to Internet safety edcuation group i-Safe, 42 percent of children have experienced bullying online, and of these, 53 percent have not reported the bullying to their parents or adults.
“One of the things that we wanted people to do was think and not just Google it,” community council president Heidi Chain said. “They were phenomenal and had such a comprehension of the topic.”
While the method of bullying has changed, experts said the effects are still the same.
“Victims experience withdrawal, fear of reporting, depression, isolation, violence and suicide,” said Detective Joseph Garcia of the NYPD Internet Crimes Unit. “A lot of these cases don’t end well and it’s unfortunate.”
A case in point is Alexis Pilkington, a 17-year-old West Islip teen who committed suicide last March after relentless online attacks. Her father, Deputy Inspector Tom Pilkington said that the attacks continued even after her death.
“You put up a memorial page, and they put up a noose with her head in it, and allegations against her family,” Pilkington said.
Pilkington said the best response is to develop thick skin and ignore the attacks. “If they don’t get a reaction, they will go away,” Pilkington said. “You’re angry, but don’t let them know it.”
The contest winner, Yerusha Salway of Forest Hills High School, echoed Pilkington’s advice in her essay.
“Sometimes they do it for entertainment, or because they are bored,” she wrote. “They have too many tech toys available to them.”
Yerusha wrote the essay after researching the topic as part of a group project at her school. She said that youths should be careful online, while enjoying it and sharing details of their lives.
Seventh-grader Isabella Mezzottone, a contest finalist, said that students should not respond to friend requests from people they have never met.
“Don’t add friends to look more popular, if you don’t know who they are,” Isabella said.
Isabella and Yerusha said that when they experience problems online they always tell their parents. But Pizzuti, who has a 12-year-old daughter, said communication could be difficult.
“When I tell her that we’re just trying to help you, she tells me, ‘Mom I’m never going to tell you anything again,’” Pizzutti noted. “These things can evolve into crimes and you have to use your computers responsibly.”
While the law catches up to the technology, authorities are using applicable existing criminal laws to prosecute offenders. “Cyberbullying is not a crime, but we work with laws on the books, such as aggravated harassment and criminal impersonation,” Garcia said.
In all, some 400 essays were submitted to the contest, which was judged by Pizzuti, Executive Assistant District Attorney Jesse Sligh and Maspeth Federal Savings and Loan Manager Victoria Grappone.
“This is an issue that touches home for a lot of students,” said Chain. “This is something our youth face every day.”