May 31st, 2016

Tragedy in the news

For several days this past April, the news media in Virginia covered the disappearance of a Fairfax County firefighter, Nicole Mittendorf. After extensive searching, her car was found in the Shenandoah National Park. Worst fears were confirmed when her remains were discovered. Police confirmed there was a suicide note in her car.

As tragic as this story is, a disturbing twist makes it even more so. Allegations have surfaced that Mittendorf was the victim of cyberbullying. A website called Fairfax Underground included a thread for Fairfax County firefighters. According to The Huffington Post, “Commenters went after multiple women believed to be Fairfax County employees and volunteers, making claims about their promiscuity, sharing their photos and judging their attractiveness.” The Huffington Post did point out that anyone could write on the site, so it’s not 100 percent certain that these posts were from fellow firefighters.

Richard Bowers, Fairfax County fire chief, promised a full investigation of the posts and declared that the fire department wouldn’t tolerate “bullying of any kind.” It’s unclear how long the fire department has known about the posts and how they had been addressed, if at all.

Bowers’s comment highlights the fact that there are different kinds of bullying. Cyberbullying is a more recent type of bullying to emerge along with the rise of technology. A government website called defines cyberbullying as “bullying that takes place using electronic technology. Examples of cyberbullying include mean text messages or emails, rumors sent by email or posted on social networking sites and embarrassing pictures, videos, websites or fake profiles.” Another definition, given by the National Conference of State Legislature, describes cyberbullying as “the willful and repeated use of cell phones, computers and other electronic communication devices to harass and threaten others.”

Another disturbing story occurred in July 2014 when a teenaged girl pressured her boyfriend into committing suicide, primarily through text messages. Even though she had asked her boyfriend to delete the messages, investigators found them anyway. Now judges are trying to decide whether to convict the girl of manslaughter in the death. The legal challenges underlying a case of cyberbullying are highlighted by this case, which rests on whether the text messages the girl sent to her boyfriend are considered to be protected speech.

Gender and age considerations

When you hear the term cyberbullying, you might think the victims are mainly young and female. The previous stories demonstrate that these stereotypes don’t always apply. Cyberbullying is a particular problem among teenaged girls, however. According to a 2013 article on, one in six students was the target of cyberbullying within a 12-month period. Girls were more than twice as likely to report being the victim of cyberbullying.

A survey by the Pew Research Center provides important data about teenagers and cyberbullying. Conducted in 2007, they found that “about one third (32%) of all teenagers who use the internet say they have been targets of a range of annoying and potentially menacing online activities.” They affirmed that girls are more likely to experience these activities than boys; and not surprisingly, those who were more active and open about themselves online were more likely to experience cyberbullying. At that point in time, however, 67 percent of the respondents felt like they were more likely to be bullied offline than online. As the use of technology has expanded, however, it’s reasonable to predict that this percentage would have decreased.

Not just an issue for teenagers, though, adults in workplaces are increasingly experiencing problems with online bullying. In a recent survey from the National Institutes of Health, 10.7 percent of the respondents reported having been bullied. These come through threatening emails typically, but adults aren’t immune from bullying through social media.

According to adult bullying expert Carol-Anne Steringa, “Book review sites are great places for bullies to hang out.” She states that bullies seek to take power away from others and that “the mark of a bully is that they don’t know the first thing about dealing with people. They are often passive aggressive. They use pressure tactics. So if things are not going their way, they hurt rather than help.” In the case of sites for book reviews, Steringa says, “Offering honest, critical analysis about a product or service is one thing”; but an “abusive, negative rant is e-bullying.” 

Responding to cyberbullying

Steringa gives advice for those who are victims at work. “Deal with it directly and swiftly,” she says. “If your supervisor is the tormentor, talk to him or her first … If it continues, take your evidence to a trusted leader at your company and your human resources contact.”

It might not be so simple for teenagers, however. The church may be in a unique position to help teens deal with bullying. “A church can create an atmosphere where we let people know that kind of behavior is not what we should do as Christians,” said the Reverend Mark Bray, senior pastor of Summer Grove United Methodist Church in Shreveport, Louisiana.

Besides creating that kind of atmosphere, the church’s youth ministries could be a valuable resource for helping teens navigate the waters of the internet safely. Parry Aftab, the executive director of an organization called WiredSafety, reported that only five percent of youth surveyed would tell a parent that they were being bullied; but one third would confide in another trusted adult. “A youth pastor could be the most likely person they will trust. So we have to prepare them to be the trusted adult,” Aftab said. “[Youth pastors] need to understand cyberbullying and sexting. They need to understand how the technology works and how it’s abused. You have a precious few minutes to do it right, and if you do it wrong you’ll never hear from them again.”

Modeling behavior

Modeling appropriate ways to treat a neighbor is an important part of how the church can influence young people — and older people, too — in avoiding bullying behavior. Parry Aftab agrees. “We need to model behavior and be that which we want kids to be. We can’t get catty about what people wear to church. We need to show them that it’s not OK to be unkind or target differences,” she explained.

Besides being knowledgeable about cyberbullying and the technology that’s used to perpetrate it, modeling appropriate Christian behavior, and being available to teens and others when they need a safe space to talk about their experiences, Aftab recommends that church leaders encourage those who have been bullied to tell their stories. “We need to encourage the kids within the church to tell their own stories, so their peers can support them,” she said.

This kind of story-sharing may also encourage those who have been bullied but are too afraid to talk about it to come forward and tell somebody. If they would be willing to do that, the process of healing can begin, as well as appropriate measures to ensure that the cyberbullying no longer occurs.

Be sure to check out FaithLink, a weekly downloadable discussion guide for classes and small groups.

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