Vulnerable Victims Fall Prey to Cyber Bullies

The evolution and advancement of technology has facilitated the production and usage of easily accessible information that has, in many ways, produced positive benefits to our way of life. The advent of the internet was initially received with praise for its wide-ranging capabilities to enhance knowledge, increase world-wide communication, and further global development. Over time, it has proved to be a helpful tool as well as one that can be used in a detrimental fashion producing harmful or even deadly consequences.

When 13-year-old Megan Meier, in Dardenne Prairie, Missouri, went online to the social networking site of My and developed a friendship with someone named "Josh," she was unaware that the result of that encounter would result in her death coupled with additional far-reaching secondary victimization. Megan was a young girl who suffered from depression, attention deficit disorder, self-esteem issues, and battled a weight problem. Reportedly, she had been seeing a counselor since she was in the third grade due to alleged concerns about the possibility of her contemplating suicide. At one point she had been the alleged victim of bullying. Her parents transferred her to a different school where she seemed happier, became involved in school activities, and lost 20 pounds.

The adolescent years naturally bring their own developmental difficulties without the added complexity of any other pre-existent conditions. It is common for young people in this age group to possess a strong desire to be loved by their families, accepted by their peers, and liked by their friends. The competitive edge that borders their relationships can be demanding, fierce, and unrelenting.

Thus, when Megan met her new friend, "Josh," online, her mother, Tina Meier, was somewhat leery but, with supervision, allowed her to maintain contact. Megan's new friend sent her text messages indicating he liked her, and he made her feel good about herself. Though Megan was bubbling with excitement, her mother still wondered who this new friend was but allowed her to continue communicating with Josh.

Megan became very upset, one day, when Josh seemed to turn on her. His charming, kind ways quickly transformed to a point when he sent Megan a message on October 15, 2006 stating, "I don't know if I want to be friends with you anymore because I've heard that you are not very nice to your friends." Megan, who was astounded, asked for an explanation but didn't receive one. The following day, a series of unpleasant messages were transmitted between Megan and Josh. Megan continued to ask him who was telling him that she was a bad friend, and she also suggested names of people who might be doing this. A number of individuals then entered the controversy, and they, in turn, had others get involved in the verbal tirade. The mudslinging against Megan was augmented by insulting her with derogatory name calling and denigrating comments. For Megan, the final straw was when Josh ultimately told her the world would be a better place without her.

Megan took those words to heart and was emotionally crushed by someone to whom she had become attached through online communication. While her parents were preparing dinner, she went to her room and hung herself.

Her parents were devastated, the neighbors were shocked, and the community grieved. The series of events that evolved following her death demonstrate the nature, extent, and deleterious consequences of cyber bullying.

Josh was not, in fact, a real person. He was a "Sock Puppet" - an artificial Internet persona - created by the mother, Lori Drew, who was a former friend of Megan's. Ms. Drew solicited her daughter into the scheme to create Josh and have him communicate, through MySpace, with Megan to discover what potentially mean things Megan was saying to others about her daughter as a result of their falling-out. Another girl in the neighborhood became involved to a small extent. However, she was also the one who told her mother, Michele Mulford, the truth about what happened, and her mother conveyed this knowledge to the Meier family. The aftermath of the episode had a tremendous impact on the Mulford family. Upon learning what had transpired and that her daughter had been a part of this horrible episode, Ms. Mulford became hysterical. Since that time, both she and her daughter have been involved in counseling.

The Drew family incurred the wrath of the community and a wave of vigilantism surfaced. Bloggers posted their names, phone numbers, email addresses, places of employment, and other personal information on the internet. Property damage was done to their home, threats were made against them, and their jobs were affected. Many wondered how an adult woman - who is also a parent - could be the instigator and engage her child in such a cruel act particularly when she was supposedly aware of the fact that Megan suffered from depression. The vigilantes wanted revenge.

The Meier family suffered greatly, and their lives were shattered in various ways. The loss of their daughter, as a result of cyber bullying, caused irreversible personal damage and devastation. "I have this awful, horrible guilt, and this I can never change. Ever." says Tina Meier. Ron and Tina Meier filed for divorce and put restraining orders in place against one another. Their remaining daughter spends time with each parent. "She (Megan) would never have wanted to see her parents divorce," says Ron Meier.

What adds to the Meier's tremendous loss and reverberating grief is the fact that nothing could be done about what occurred. No charges could be filed against Ms. Drew for her actions because there were no laws on the books, in the city or state, to legally charge her with a crime. As a consequence of this tragic episode, many rallied for the formulation of a law to prevent such an incident from ever recurring without severe repercussions. The city's Board of Aldermen passed a law making cyber-harassment a misdemeanor crime with a maximum 90-day jail term, a $500.00 fine, or both.

Cyber bullying, according to the National Crime Prevention Council, is a problem affecting half of all American teens. Cyber bullies are known to spread lies, rumors, send mean messages, and pretend they are other people or someone who they are not. They can commit their actions through social networking sites, instant messaging, email, cell phones, and cameras. Cyber bullies tend not to think about the consequences of their actions and believe they are smart enough not get caught because of their invisibility. Like Megan Meier, their victims are often vulnerable. "Adolescents take what is said online as the literal truth," says Justin Patchin, Assistant Professor at the University of Wisconsin Eau Clair, who has studied cyber bullying.

The cruel taunting that can ensue with cyber bullying can be traumatic for unsuspecting victims who believe in the legitimacy of the real person or the Sock Puppet at the other end of the communication channel. With a particularly vulnerable victim who may suffer from depression or have other psychological issues, as in the case of Megan Meier, cyber bullying can lead - as it did in her case - to deadly consequences.

Legislators, law enforcement officers, prosecutors, judges, and other allied professionals in the criminal justice system need to become increasingly aggressive and proactive in their efforts to combat cyber bullying. The forum of secrecy and anonymity, that encompasses the playing field of cyber bullies, provides them latitude to prey upon vulnerable victims and affords them the opportunity to do great harm. "It was like someone handed her a loaded gun," says her father, and the end result was her tragic death.