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Cyberbullying Hits Local Family

The victim was harassed on the website formspring.me by anonymous users.

A South Setauket teen is the victim of harassment on the same social media website linked to the suicide of a West Islip teen earlier this year.

Cruel messages saying "you should kill yourself," sexually derrogatory comments, hurtful messages directed toward the teen's family, and other negative statements were sent to the South Setauket teen on the website formspring.me around the start of the new school year, according to the teen's mother.

Marie, the mother of the teen, reported the incident to police but found little support because it was determined that no concrete threat had been made against her child. She says parents need to pay more attention to what their children are doing online, and in particular to formspring, which allows its users to remain anonymous.

"I think many parents don't even know that their kids are on it," Marie said. "They're not aware of what their kids are doing on the computer."

Anonymous harassment on formspring has been debated as a possible catalyst in the suicide of Alexis Pilkington, a 17-year-old soccer star from West Islip who was harassed on the website during the weeks leading up to her death in March.

Parry Aftab, a national expert on cyberlaw and author of the book A Parent's Guide to the Internet, said cyberbullying is on the rise and formspring is one of the more popular vehicles cyberbullies use, particularly among middle schoolers. Aftab said 85 percent of middle school students in a 2008 survey reported they had been cyberbullied at least once, but only five percent said they would tell their parents. And 70 percent of all teens polled in the survey admitted to cyberbullying someone else.

"They are doing things that allow them to become more vulnerable," Aftab said. "They may be sharing a lot of personal information. Because the level of interactivity and connectivity, the kids are just engaged in far more malicious and terrorist behavior against others using digital technology."

Aftab said parents need to ask their children questions about their online activities.

"You need to talk to your kids," she said. "You have to promise you're not going to overreact when it happens. That's why kids hide it from their parents."

A spokeswoman for formspring said the nine-month-old website has taken steps to ensure the safety of its 16.5 million users, such as expanded privacy options, a system for reporting abuse, and a safety tips section launched in July.

"The large majority of our users are on our site having fun and following the rules," said Sarahjane Sacchetti, director of communications for formspring.

Marie also brought the incident to the attention of the Three Village Central School District. She said the district will not be taking any specific actions in response to this particular incident, which was not the first one it had seen.

"I just wish they would talk about it in the classrooms," she said. "Health class, that would be a good place to talk about it. It's something that's really serious right now."

Interim superintendent Neil Lederer said the district has a number of anti-cyberbullying and internet safety programs in place, such as peer mediation, parent workshops, internet safety clubs, participation in Rachel's Challenge, character education and social-emotional literacy based programs.

Additionally, Lederer said the New York State legislature recently passed a law called Acts of Dignity which requires school districts to create formal anti-bullying programs by July of 2012.

"Cyberbullying has been so epidemic that laws had to be enacted...I think you'll see an improvement over time," Lederer said.

Marie hopes other families can learn from this incident.

"[My child] is a very strong person who has a lot of friends and a lot of people who can help [us] through it," she said. "My worry is that this is going to happen to someone who doesn't have that."

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