Television psychologist Phillip McGraw, host of syndicated TV show 'Dr. Phil,' brought star power to a U.S. House Subcommittee on Healthy Families and Communities hearing Thursday on Capitol Hill, where he was one of six panelists seeking federal help in combating cyberbullying.
"It is impossible to un-ring the cyber bell," said McGraw when explaining why cyberbullying is perhaps more dangerous than its verbal or physical counterparts. "Once it's out there, it's out there. "
McGraw and others petitioned committee members to push for language addressing cyberbullying in Congress' upcoming reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, and appeared to share a sentiment that, in lieu of significant federal funding, even verbal and written support would offer a psychological boost to those fighting the phenomenon.
"There are proposals on the Hill to look at funding these issues, but I don't need funding right now. I just need partners," said fellow panelist Parry Aftab, the executive director of New Jersey-based online safety group WiredSafety. "In the olden days, if you wanted to bake a cake, you'd have somebody bring some flour and somebody else bring some eggs and somebody else bring some sugar, and in the end everybody got to take a few pieces home. That's what we have to do here."
Cyberbullying can range in method and in scope, but generally it occurs when people use computers, social-networking websites, and mobile devices to write messages or post images that harm other people's reputations. It is much more common, but not completely unique, among children, and has gained attention in the wake of recent tragedies.
Phoebe Prince, a 15-year old girl who moved from Ireland to South Hadley, Mass., committed suicide in January after apparently suffering cyberbulling from classmates on social networking sites. West Islip, N.Y., native Alexis Pilkington, who was 17, may have succumbed to a similar fate in March.
Aftab and Barbara-Jane Paris, an Austin, Texas principal who sits on the Reston, Va.-based National Association of Secondary School Principals' board of directors, said successful cyberbullying policies depend upon who implements them and how they do it. But they insisted reinforcement from Washington would make implementation easier.
"Our challenge ... is to protect [students] from the risks of technology while still protecting their First Amendment rights and [to] allow them to use technology as a legitimate tool," Paris said. "We need somebody who is behind us when we say, 'Knock it off, it's not OK to behave that way in the culture we've developed on our campus.' We need backing to say that when parents come to us and say [students have] First Amendment rights to free speech."
Responding to a question from Rep. Bobby Scott (D-Va), who asked whether research had shown cyberbullying intervention programs to be successful, Aftab said the most effective programs are peer-run, meaning students intervene when they see or hear of cyberbullying in their school. Earlier, Dominique Napolitano, a rising high school junior from West Islip, the same town as Pilkington, spoke about her membership in one such initiative, the Let Me Know Program run by the Girl Scouts of the United States.
McGraw encouraged parents and teachers to take proactive measures to find out children's online activities. He also stressed that, to stop cyberbullying, perpetrators should be counseled, not vilified.
"Bullies don't understand the gravity of what they're doing," McGraw said. "They just simply don't get that. We have to help them understand ... that, 'When I do this, it's destroying someone's life." He later added of the bullies: "I've had them on [my show] 10 years after the fact and they see the devastation they've caused ... they're shocked at this."