"Did you know that if you text someone and say, 'I think you are gay,' you can be arrested?" asked Pennsylvania State Police Trooper First Class Rick Williams while addressing an assembly at Pleasant Valley Middle School on Cyberbullying.
Williams told the group of eighth and ninth grade students that making statements like that can be considered a form of cyberbullying.
Cyberbullying occurs when new technologies such as computers and mobile phones are used to harass or bully somebody. The perpetrators often use SMS, e-mail, chat rooms and Facebook to spread their message.
"If you are caught making statements like that through texting or emailing, it can be considered harassment and you can be arrested, which will go on your record. I can tell you that if you have plans of going to college, that can keep you from being accepted," he told the assembly.
According to Rocco Seiler, Pleasant Valley Area School District's technology systems coordinator, cyberbullying is a growing problem and the district is hoping to educate its students to prevent it.
A lot of damage can be done to teens or adults through cyberbullying. In some cases, cyberbullying has been cited for causing death.
An online hoax that went terribly wrong made national news. Megan Meier, 13, of Dardenne Praire, Missouri, was the victim of cruel and malious rumors posted on a MySpace profile by a former friend's mother. As a result, Megan sunk into a deep depression and hanged herself. Her parents do not believe it was the woman's intent to have Megan commit suicide, but they do hold her solely responsible for the death.
It has been suggested that in the country around 10 percent of all adolescents in grades 7-9 are victims of internet bullying which can be more serious than conventional bullying. In conventional bullying, the victim is left alone on evenings and weekends. Victims of cyberbullying have no where to go. Victims may be harassed continuously via SMS and websites, with information spreading very quickly and may be difficult to remove. It is often difficult to identify the perpetrator. Often it is from someone in the same school as the victim.
Trooper Williams told the students that as soon as anyone receives a threat online to tell an adult.
One of the PVMS students said that she knew of an incident where a girl was being bullied on MySpace. She printed it out and took it to school to show the principal.
"If it happens at home, print it out and show it to your parents," he told her. "Make them aware of what is going on."
Seiler said that noboby wants to see this come to the point where anyone is harmed.
"Bring it to our attention. We do not want any of you to come to physical harm. Take every threat as a threat. Your job is to see that no one comes to harm or physical altercations."
He also told the students that no cyber message is ever gone. It will always be on the computer and can be retrieved.
So how can cyberbullying among children and adolescents be prevented?
Seiler believes it can be done by educating the students and the public.
Students need to get good information about the ethical choices they make every day.
It is believed that schools need to teach students how to block others from commenting on their Facebook pages, and warn them of the emotional impact of online bullying. There is no way to stop cyberbullying, only ways to inform people of the consequences.
Another suggestion is to inform students of the hurtfulness of online messages by posting on a Facebook fan page statistics of cyberbullying-related deaths. The thought is, if you saw those statistics every day, you would think twice before cyberbullying.
Also, parents and adults shouldn't be so naive about what their children can be facing. Listen seriously to what they have to say.
Brodheadsville Magisterial District Judge Debby York told the students that if anyone receives a text or email of harassment, don't communicate back.
"It's what the person getting the message takes from it that matters. And don't take people at face value. Someone may tell you that you're hot and it could be a 40-year-old who has no business telling you that. Don't encourage the person sending the message. Always err on the side of caution," she said.
One student asked "If someone bullies you and says if you tell anyone they'll hurt someone else close to you to intimidate you, what do you do?"
York responded with, "In all my years that I have been a judge, that has only happened twice. Your best course of action is to always tell someone-a parent or a teacher."
In closing, Seiler told the student body that if something is happening, tell an adult. Parents can go to the State Police.
"If you feel unsafe, stop doing what you're doing. Print it out. Talk to someone. Together we can stop cyperbullying."
(Pleasant Valley School District has an emergency "HOTLINE" available to parents, students and the general public to be used to report threats or tips with regard to the safety or well-being of the district or any members of the school community, e.g. students, faculty, staff. All calls will remain anonymous. Calls may be recorded. Any person making false claims or reports will be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.)