The suicide of college student Tyler Clementi, whose sexual encounter was secretly streamed online via webcam, showed the brazen side of cyberbullying -- along with its cost.
But sometimes, cyberbullying takes place with nary a word texted or a message posted, a panel of Internet experts said in Minneapolis on Thursday.
Complaints are now surfacing from despondent teens who have been shut out by groups of friends or classmates on Facebook or other social networking sites, said Shayla Thiel Stern, an assistant professor at the University of Minnesota who researches youth communication.
The pain of "massive defriending" is as real to youths as if nobody talked to them at school, she said. "In a lot of cases, this is just as devastating to them as online harassment."
Thiel Stern joined a cyber-crimes investigator, a Northfield parent whose daughter was victimized online, and a public policy expert for Facebook on Thursday to discuss the many forms that cyberbullying can take and the legal, technological and parenting solutions that might be available.
The forum at Augsburg College was arranged by Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., who has written federal legislation that would make it easier to prosecute online stalkers and to require schools to have bullying policies.
Surveys have estimated that a third to half of adolescents and teens have been bullied or harassed online.
While the bullying might not result in physical bruises, it can be emotionally traumatizing and inescapable for teens who use e-mail and texting as a primary form of communication.
"A bully on the Internet has the whole world as his school yard," Klobuchar said.
The veil of the computer screen also makes it easier for bullies to be cruel and for others to pile on to what they see on social networking sites, panelists said.
Lynn Miland of Northfield, Minn., said her autistic daughter was assaulted by a bully in high school a few years ago, but that the attack was preceded by weeks of harassment online.
"The bruises have long since faded," said Miland, who now advocates for disabled children through the Pacer Center, "but it's something that is hard to forget."
Sometimes it's the reverse -- online bullying follows physical bullying. Victims have filed assault complaints with police, only to be harassed online by their assailants, said Brian Hill, a computer forensics investigator with the Anoka County Sheriff's Office. "It's definitely not a myth. It's out there and it happens."
Nicole Jackson Colaco, a Facebook public policy manager who participated in the panel, encouraged parents to get more involved. Those who are Web-illiterate can empower their children and ask them to demonstrate how social networking works, she said.
Ideally, she added, conversations about the pitfalls should start before parents allow children access to social networking.
"You wouldn't put your kids in a pool without teaching them to swim," she said.
Some parents require that they be Facebook "friends" who can see their kids' pages. All families should use Facebook's privacy tools and their own judgment to control their online worlds, she added. "It seems like a no-brainer, but you never have to accept a friend request."
Klobuchar admitted she once embarrassed her daughter by admitting in public that she didn't understand the online acronym "LOL." She has become more savvy, now knowing that "POS" is her daughter's warning to friends online that Parents are looking Over her Shoulder. She discourages her daughter from posting specifics about her schedule, address or whereabouts.
Panelists were mindful of the recent death of Clementi. Jackson Colaco said a memorial Facebook page to him hosted compelling discussions about sexuality, but also drew hate speech that was removed. She said Facebook prioritizes complaints it receives about harassment or bullying and actively trolls for content that violates its policies. Authors of that content can be warned or removed from the site.
"We are seeing a lot of hateful language on the [memorial] site," she said. "We're going after it."
Jeremy Olson • 612-673-7744