Investigating and Preventing Cyberbullying 2: Lessons Learned from the Megan Meier Case

In this part of the panel, the participants are focusing on offline to online bullying relation as well as the notorious Megan Meier case and its consequences.

David Kirkpatrick: So, Jaana, I want to jump to the other end of the road here. As a social scientist who’s spent your career studying bullying in general, talk a little bit about how online bullying relates to offline bullying, and what you’ve learned about the whole phenomenon.

Jaana Juvonen: You know, it’s interesting, because on the one hand there are more similarities than differences, and there are big overlaps. So, the number one predictor for a kid getting repeatedly cyber bullied is that the kid is bullied at school. So the same kids get bullied, and the same kids, in all likelihood, are also doing the bullying, whether we are talking about the school context and face-to-face, or the electronic world.

At the same time there are pieces of evidence regarding other related questions that make me pause, and this is what I worry about: that the electronic world intensifies and amplifies many of the developmental processes that we are concerned about as parents and teachers and adults in general.

For example, think about your teenagers. What do they like to do? They are always comparing themselves to other people to figure out how attractive they are, how smart they are, how popular they are. Put it now in the context of Facebook, and what you have is access to these 200 to 400 friends, so-called friends, and now you are comparing yourself to these extremely polished, very well packaged images.

You have this contrast between feeling so connected and at the same time being so very alone.

So the social comparison process never was easy: we always find somebody who is more attractive and more popular. But now in the context of something like Facebook you are just amplifying the process. The kids are more likely to feel miserable about themselves.

Now take it to the bullying context: what I’m afraid of is that this sense of connectedness that kids have, for example, through Facebook – which is great on one hand – when they experience the cyberbullying, they are so alone. That is, they are in front of their screens, whether it’s the cell phone or a computer screen. And so you have this contrast between, on the one hand, feeling so connected, and at the same time being so very alone.

And we know, based on research, that cyberbullying in terms of how kids perpetrate this nasty spreading of rumors, spreading pictures, etc, it’s easy to do, and at the same time, in all likelihood, over time is a harder experience for kids.

David Kirkpatrick: Do you agree with Sameer that it’s not fundamentally getting worse, even though it’s obviously a subject of serious concern?

Jaana Juvonen: You know, I think I have maybe a slightly different view on it. So, we’ve been doing this research, like you said, in schools for about 20 years now. And what’s really interesting about it is that when we started, bullying still was very overt: kids were calling one another names; they were physically attacking one another – it was visible.

When you put an anti-bullying program in a school, what happens? It goes underground, it goes, and it’s much more covert. And when kids move to the online environment, where so many of their interactions and relationships are now formed and maintained through the electronic communication, it would not be surprising to me at all if over the next few years we’ll see more cyberbullying, and maybe, on balance, less bullying face-to-face.

Megan Meier - the teenage girl who got cyberbullied to suicide

Megan Meier – the teenage girl who got cyberbullied to suicide

David Kirkpatrick: Mark, talk just a little bit about the Megan Meier case, which you did prosecuting, to summarize what happened there and give a view, from a law enforcement perspective, what you think can be done and how law enforcement is to be viewed in relation to this issue?

Mark Krause: Sure; for those of you who may or may not be familiar with the case, Megan Meier was a teenage girl in the St. Louis area. She was friends with another girl about her age. Megan’s parents decided to move her to a different school, and as a consequence her relationship with the other girl became more strained.

The parents of that other girl were hurt by this, in particular the mother. And so the mother, her daughter, and the nanny/employee of the mother concocted this plan where they were going to teach Megan a lesson. They created a fake profile of a very handsome shirtless man, well, teenage boy, who befriended and then romanced Megan online. After this went on for a while, Megan fell hard for the guy, the catfish, as it were. And ultimately, as per the plan, they humiliated her, teased her online, and it got so bad one night they said: “You should eat shit and die,” if you’d excuse my language. And I think then at that point she went upstairs and hung herself.

David Kirkpatrick: What year was that?

Mark Krause: That would have been in 2007, I believe. The local DA in the St. Louis area, the St. Charles region did not think this was necessarily a criminal case and quite publicly said: “Look, this is not a crime, nothing to see here.” Because the communications on Myspace got routed through Los Angeles, our office had jurisdiction over the case, and the mother was indicted under a cyber crime statute. She proceeded to trial and was convicted of a misdemeanor offence, which the judge then vacated, so she was acquitted.

David Kirkpatrick: Having been so deeply involved in that, and given this transition I described before, where Facebook has now become the central place where kids interact online, do you think it would be less likely for that kind of thing to happen today because of the identity-based nature of Facebook?

Mark Krause: You know, it’s hard to say. I mean, I think that there’s going to be people who are going to seek to do other people ill, regardless of the form. There are going to be some people out there who are going to engage in antisocial conduct, regardless of the mechanism. Certainly, the anonymity of Myspace helped these perpetrators, at least in my view. But I think that there will be bullying as long as there is communication.

David Kirkpatrick: So, what was the kind of conclusion you drew at the end of this whole experience about what law enforcement can and can’t do?

Mark Krause: Well, it’s certainly not a problem that I think you can arrest your way out of. There are not enough resources, because a lot of this is juvenile on juvenile. There are a number of obstacles to bring a criminal case against juveniles. I think that law enforcement can play a role, go for more extreme cases, as we did in this particular case, go against an adult on adult conduct, or, in this case, adult on juvenile conduct. But I think you cannot look to law enforcement the way that you’re going to solve the problem.

Read previous: Pandora’s Box Meets the Sword of Damocles: Investigating and Preventing Cyberbullying

Read next: Investigating and Preventing Cyberbullying 3: Facebook’s Perspective

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