SPRINGFIELD, NJ — Children have been known to use electronic devices to bully or harass others as early as the third grade, a detective with the Union County Prosecutor’s Office told parents at a Springfield Town Hall forum on cyberbullying and internet safety
The relatively young age for using computers comes since technology is being taught and integrated earlier and earlier, Detective Dawn Correia from the Prosecutor’s Office Juvenile Unit said.
The recent information session came three weeks after several allegations of more conventional bullying — including a highly publicized case of a fourth-grader who has been absent from school since late September — surfaced at the Springfield Board of Education’s Nov. 6 meeting.
Before the age of the internet, bullying consisted of face-to-face encounters. Now, it’s defined by 24 hours of harassment with no escape outlet, Correia told the audience of about 20, which included Springfield resident and Union County Freeholder Chairman Bruce Bergen.
Correia also noted that “60 percent of sixth grade students to ninth grade students who bully will end up with at least one criminal conviction by the age of 24.”
The internet age has changed the way humans interact, Correia said. From the beeper to the smartphone, communications have dramatically evolved in just two decades. Every day, 7,000 computer and phone applications vye for approval for user purchase. The popularity of the many apps available varies among Union County schoolchildren from one town to the next, she said.
Many newer apps include GPS locators, and can used by unscrupulous strangers to communicate with children, a danger, Correia said. Additionally, new apps provide variations to the chat room and offer ways to communicate with the general public.
“All of these new applications that are coming out are just like chat rooms, which are easier for strangers to start up a conversation and meet whomever you want,” Correia said. “To participate you don’t need a license, identification or anything.”
Despite the belief that hurtful messages or pictures that target a victim can be deleted or erased, Correia added that the High Tech Unit at the UCPO can extract any information it seeks, even if no longer visible on a particular platform, app or website.
All her unit has to do is send a court order to any social media site requesting that information, and they will hand it over, Correia said.
Several notable cases of cyberbullying have resulted in suicide including here in New Jersey.
One well-publicized occurrence that gained international attention was the death of Rutgers University student Tyler Clementi in 2010. Clementi took his own life two weeks after his roommate, Dharun Ravi, and his friends secretly viewed Clementi with another man via Ravi’s laptop webcam, then commented about the episode on social media.
Ravi eventually pleaded guilty to a count of invasion of privacy, but New Jersey enacted a law to make cyber harassment an indictable crime in 2014, specifying the use of online communications meant to harm, annoy or threaten another person.
“Depending on the age of both the target harassed, as well as the individuals making the online statements, the offense can be charged as either a third- or fourth-degree indictable offense,” the law reads.
Encouraging safety and responsibility on social media, Correia suggested that social media and internet users keep their accounts private; never tag or post their locations; logout when using a devices other than their own; use strong passwords; know and manage their phones, and keep personal information private.