Extreme cyberbullying: US case

Unlike other extreme cyberbullying cases I've written about, this one occurred in the US and ended in a teenager's suicide. In this case, covered this week in a suburban newspaper in the St. Louis area, Megan Meier, 13, committed suicide allegedly because a 16-year-old boy had changed his mind and no longer wanted to be her friend. It was a cyberbullying case because the "relationship," from beginning to end, was conducted entirely online. Adding to the tragedy, the "boy" never existed. As in the New Zealand cases, the "owner" of the social-networking profile around which the "relationship" developed was a fictional character.

What's different about this case – and what makes it even more perplexing – is that the cyberbully, the creator of the fictional profile and relationship, was an adult. The mother of a teenage girl who had parted ways with Megan allegedly created a MySpace profile for "Josh." The story she made up – because, she told the paper, she wanted to see what Megan would say about her daughter online – was that "Josh" was new in town, being home-schooled, came from a "broken home," and had no phone number. Helped by her daughter and another teenage girl, the mother reportedly had this fictitious boy contact Megan through her MySpace profile and ask her to "friend" him. The girl, who had been diagnosed with attention deficit disorder and struggled with being overweight, reportedly was thrilled – for the six weeks last fall that the Josh profile's creators led her on. She committed suicide on Oct. 16, 2006.

No criminal charges have been filed, the Suburban Journals reports, and the parents "do not plan to file a civil lawsuit." A police report has been filed, but local law enforcement told the paper there was no charge that fit the case. There was a brief FBI investigation, the Journals reports. It spoke of problems the FBI had accessing content on the family's hard drive, but it didn't mention whether the FBI contacted MySpace with a subpoena for evidence on its servers. The town's working on making online harassment a crime, a "Class B misdemeanor," the Journals reported separately, "punishable by 90 days in jail and/or a $500 fine." At the state level, that would be a Class A misdemeanor, possibly leading to a year's imprisonment and/or a $1,000 fine, the Journals added. Missouri State Rep. Cynthia Davis, R-19th District, of O'Fallon (Mo.) said she would explore proposing state legislation but acknowledged that cyberbullying is a problem that goes well beyond town, state, and even national jurisdictions.

The case could eventually have national implications, starting at least with raising public awareness. The hundreds of individual responses posted below the article fill about 90% of the Web page, and the story apparently has caught national media attention – CNN was to interview Megan's parents this week, the Journals said. SuburbanJournals.com added that local officials said they would call on the federal government to address cyberbullying.

Related links

* On the latest US cyberbullying research by the Pew Internet and American Life Project
* "Cyberethics training needed"
* Various aspects of the cyberbullying problem
* "'eBullies': Coping with cyberbullying"
* "Predators vs. cyberbullies: Reality check"
* "Extreme cyberbullying: 2 cases"
* Cyberbullying & Cyberthreats: Responding to the Challenge of Online Social Aggression, Threats, and Distress, by Nancy E. Willard of the Center for Safe & Responsible Internet Use
* Cyberbullying.ca – a help site by award-winning Canadian educator Bill Belsey
* Cyberbullying.us – a research site by Profs. Sameer Hinduja Florida Atlantic University and Justin Patchin at University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire.

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