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Cyberbullying: The Power and Peril of Anonymity

While the faceless nature of the Internet can bring out the worst in cyberbullies of all shapes and sizes, it also means concerned bystanders can more easily report wrongdoing without the stigma of public identification, said panelists at a town hall meeting on cyberbullying Tuesday in Chicago and on a live Web stream worldwide.

"The same anonymity you use as the bully, you can use as the quote-unquote 'snitch,'" said Mike Hawkins, the coordinator and lead mentor of YOUmedia, a tech-enhanced learning space for teens housed within the Chicago Public Library's Harold Washington Library Center. "There's a lot of different ways where you can empower, and if you can't do it yourself, you can push the social network, you can push the school."

Hawkins and his fellow panelists at the event—co-hosted by children's media watchdogs Common Sense Media, and Internet safety efforts Yahoo Safely and MTV's A Thin Line—explored why cyberbullying occurs, why it can be more dangerous than the "traditional" face-to-face variety, and who has what responsibilities in trying to stop it.

And while many ed-tech advocates have fought for the right to use the capabilities of popular social networks like Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube, the panelists stressed that if any of those environments should become threatening because of cyberbullying, students should know they have the option to opt out.

"Since I've deleted Facebook, my relationships with people are a lot better, and I have more time to figure myself out and work on my grades," said Tiffany Witkowski, a senior at Chicago's Von Steuben High School, who was also part of a student council that recommended that city schools investigate allowing student-owned cellphones as educational tools. "I just want to point out that it was my solution, but it's not everybody's solution."

Witkowski also recommended that teachers who are active on Facebook—a site that has drawn most of the recent media attention as a venue for cyberbullying—consider maintaining two profiles. Teachers could have one profile for their personal lives, she said, and another for their school persona, from which they could monitor the cyber activities of their students, the repercussions of which often spill inside the school walls.

Hawkins seconded that, insisting that the best way to intervene in cyberbullying at school or at home is not to insist on shutting access to social networking, but to be more present in students' digital world.

"If you're like, 'What is Facebook?' then you need to get connected," Hawkins said. "As parents, as adults, we need to be engaged, and in some ways, be where the students are."

Rosalind Moore, a parent of two teenagers, said she does her best to do that, while at the same time respecting her children's digital space and refusing to ask for things such as their Facebook passwords, in part because she thinks it's counter-intuitive.

"They give you the password, then they go and create another identity with a different password," Moore said. "You think you're monitoring this password, and then it's not really the truth."

Moore said she has trusted her children to contact her immediately if there's any need for concern over cyberbullying in their lives. To their credit, she says, each one has trusted her enough to do just that.

As for whether they trust Mom enough to "friend" her?

"No," Moore said. "But I'm friends with their friends."

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