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Vulnerable teens still at risk in cyberspace; Social network used by Jamey monitors anonymous posts, shuts down abusers

The kind of online hatred and harassment Jamey Rodemeyer experienced when he was in middle school was far from unusual. Danielle Mazziotti said she sees it all the time, particularly on the Web pages of friends who are homosexual or overweight.

"I have lots of friends -- everything that's on their page, every time I see it, it's all insults," said the 15-year-old Clarence High School student.

Those friends have accounts on Formspring, one of the newer social networking sites that has grown rapidly in the past two years amid the proliferation of social media on the Web.

Formspring is the site where much of the cyberbullying directed toward Jamey occurred, but by no means does it have that market cornered. School counselors say they've seen cases of cyberbullying on other sites as well, including Facebook, which remains the most popular social networking site in the world.

It would be unfair to suggest that any one factor, including cyberbullying, led to the Sept. 18 suicide of Jamey, a 14-year-old student who appeared to have struggled with issues of sexuality both at school and at home and used the Internet as a way to find more social support.

But the vile comments left on his Web pages as part of his life legacy have led many frustrated parents and educators to question what they can do to limit cyberbullying in their own child's online world and to what extent their own child is at risk of being harassed or harassing others.

At the time of Jamey's death, he had an account on Form-spring, posted dozens of YouTube videos and kept a blog on Tumblr without his parents' knowledge even though they had installed computer-monitoring software and once forced him to shut down his Form-spring account in seventh grade.

The answer depends on communication between parents and their children, which can be difficult to achieve, and awareness of their own child's emotional health, experts say. Teens often refuse to report cyberbullying to an adult because they're afraid the adult will make matters worse.

"If it gets to the point where a child is telling an adult, it's a serious deal," said Justin Patchin, associate professor at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire and co-director of the Cyberbullying Research Center. "You might not think it is, but it is. Take it seriously and say you'll do whatever you can to make it stop."

Officials at Formspring said the site now has stronger content monitoring and security tools than it had a year ago to keep online harassment in check from anonymous users.

"We realize this is a very sensitive issue," said Ro Choy, the chief operating officer for the company, "and realize we have a lot of work to do."

Unlike traditional bullying, experts point out that cyberbullying can be a 24-hour experience that offers targets no respite. The perceived anonymity of the Internet can encourage bullying behavior. And the ability to spread malicious or humiliating information quickly through words and images, and to gang up on a victim is almost limitless.

The good news is that cyberbullying doesn't happen to every child, and even when it does occur, studies show, not all children are bothered.

The Cyberbullying Research Center, which has looked at 30 published studies regarding prevalence rates, uses a conservative estimate of about 1-in-5. The center also found this type of behavior tends to peak in middle school and is prevalent among girls, he said.

"It's not an epidemic," Patchin said. "It's not an issue where everyone is experiencing it, but it's certainly something we need to pay attention to."

The proliferation of social networks and blogs online can be mind-boggling.

Formspring, a social networking site that has grown significantly since its inception less than two years ago, encourages users to ask questions of other users to foster "authentic conversations" online.

It now boasts 26 million registered users, Choy said.

"The focus on the site is really authentic, playful, interesting conversations among friends," he said.

But the ability for site users to post anonymously has resulted in criticism from some online safety advocates. Jamey expressed deep regret in a YouTube video about creating a Formspring account.

"People would just constantly send me hate," he said.

Choy said Formspring allows anonymity because it can lead to more open, authentic questions and creates a comfort level for users. However, because a minority of users (Choy says half a percent) abuse Formspring's policies, the company has rolled out a wave of tighter security measures in the last eight months to keep inappropriate questions from anonymous posters in check.

Every question that now gets posted on Formspring is monitored, and every question reported or flagged is read by a Formspring staffer, he said. Some of the horrible comments that Jamey was subjected to a year ago -- like those saying he would be better off dead -- would now be automatically flagged by Formspring, Choy said.

No user can delete any question they've sent, and accounts are disabled when violations are found. Users are also able to block anonymous questions.

Formspring has also partnered with other organizations, including MTV, to promote Internet safety, he said.

"I have no desire to see any type of negative experience coming from Formspring," said Choy, who noted that he has two young children.

He added that "aggressive" means are being employed to make the site safe.

"Believe me, I feel directly responsible for that," he added.

Experts say that keeping children safe online isn't as easy as forcing children to take down their social networking accounts, confiscating their phones, or installing computer monitoring software. In fact, a heavy-handed approach can backfire and push children toward more secrecy regarding their online activities.

"If they want private access, they'll just go to another computer," Patchin said. "If they want to avoid your technological control, they can easily do that."

Whether a child is at risk of being harmed by cyberbullying depends on the kid -- the more troubled the child, the more reason to be concerned about his or her online experience, cyberbullying expert Nancy Willard said. The opposite is also true.

"Basically, being online isn't going to turn a child who is not at risk into an at-risk child," said Willard, director of the Center for Safe and Responsible Internet Use.

Getting kids to be honest about when they're experiencing personal problems online, such as cyberbullying, requires kids to believe that their parents won't fly off the handle, and will take the problem seriously and do something about it, Patchin said.

Depending on the nature of the problem, that can mean contacting the school, the parents of the offender, the Internet service provider and/or the police.

Parents are responsible for not only shielding their child from online harassment, experts said, but also keeping their children from engaging in malicious actions online. Studies show children who are cyberbullied sometimes retaliate online with similar behavior.

Whether parents should insist on direct access to their child's online accounts depends on the child's age and emotional health. Many experts recommend parents have full access to their child's online accounts when their children are young and first exploring social media.

When children get older and request more privacy, it becomes more important for parents and and children to maintain a healthy dialogue about what their children are doing online.

"If every single time they interact with their child related to technology, they say one positive thing, then that will open the lines of communication related to the use of technology," Willard said. "There's so much fear-mongering about technology with adults that kids are not going to share."

email: stan@buffnews.com