Cyberbullying Conference Fights For Online Victims

Tina Meier, present at the New York City conference, knows there's little she can do about the suicide of her 13-year-old daughter Megan, except embark on a crusade to protect other children.

K.C. Jones, Contributor

June 3, 2008

5 Min Read

Jeffrey Johnston would have worn a cap and gown to get his diploma Sunday.

He didn't make it because, after being bullied online, he killed himself.

So, his mother asked the guidance counselor reading graduates' names to whisper "Jeffrey Scott Johnston" when it would have been his turn to walk down the aisle.

"I knew he would be there," Debbie Johnston said, as she spoke about the worst consequences of cyber bullying at a Stop Cyberbullying conference Tuesday at Pace University in New York.

Johnston was an exceptional child, the sixth in a family of seven. His brothers and sisters called him the "golden child." They were certain that someday he was going to change the world. Maybe he would come up with a cure for cancer.

He grew his hair to 14 inches -- when long hair wasn't cool -- so he could donate to "Locks of Love," a charity for cancer patients whose treatment caused their hair to fall out. He knew how to keep a secret and enthusiastically recruited friends to a neighborhood "gang." He kept a binder to record the "gang's" bylaws and history.

In seventh grade, a classmate started rumors and told the girl who liked Jeff that Jeff had said bad things about her. Jeff had no idea it was a fault not to be able to dribble a basketball -- until the classmate taught him otherwise. Jeff, who stood nearly six feet tall and weighed nearly 160 pounds, began to feel so self conscious about his body that he could not bear to remove his shirt at a water park.

The boy who had recruited and collected so many friends found himself alone.

"It's hard to believe you can have so many friends who distance themselves," Debbie Johnston said. "If they sat with Jeff, if they stood up for Jeff, they would have come under fire."

After three years, Jeff couldn't take it anymore. At 15, he went upstairs to his bedroom one night and killed himself. His mother and his brother Joe found him the next morning. "I'll never be able to give back to my son Joe what he lost that day," Debbie Johnston said. "It was not just his brother, but his faith in the world. Bullying isn't a rite of passage. It doesn't build character. It doesn't do anything but cause pain."

Tina Meier knows that pain. The young Missouri mother will never again see her daughter pull a goofy stunt to make her laugh. And, there's little she can do about the suicide of 13-year-old Megan, except embark on a crusade she never planned. Like Johnston, she urges others to do everything possible to stop cyberbullying.

A mother who lived next door to the Meiers, a former classmate, and the mother's 18-year-old employee posed as a teenage boy who feigned romantic interest in Megan for several weeks before turning on the girl one day, according to a federal indictment. During an online chat, the "boy" told Megan Meier the world would be a better place without her, according to court documents. Then others joined in, sent bulletins taunting Megan on MySpace, and tormented her for two hours, Tina Meier said.

Megan's parents were discussing the problem when her mother had a horrible feeling and ran to the girl's room. Megan had hanged herself. She died the next day.

A neighbor, Lori Drew, faces several charges related to the death. The case has drawn national attention. It marks the first time a social networking site user has been prosecuted on federal charges related to cyberbullying by accessing protected computers under false pretenses.

A group of young people fighting cyberbullying created the Megan Pledge in Meier's honor. Those who sign agree to keep several commitments related to cyber safety, like taking a stand against cyberbullying. The young people who came up with the idea hoped to draw 1 million signatures by December. offered support and 100,000 took the pledge within 24 hours. Today, more than 250,000 people have signed the pledge. The teens organized through and, which coordinated the conference. The nonprofit group has thousands of volunteers around the globe. It operates,,, and

Teens and adolescents can sign up for training through Teenangels and tweenangels. Once they get their wings, they talk to other young people and industry insiders about cyberbullying.

Their "angels" have done their own research and found that most young people don't understand the definition of cyberbullying. Young people tend to think it only includes serious threats of physical harm. And, the angels' polls of their peers have revealed that 85% of middle school students have been bullied online.

Once teens understand a broad definition that includes posting embarrassing photos, sending mean texts, starting rumors, hacking into friends' accounts and changing people's profiles, 70% of teens admit they have engaged in cyberbullying themselves.

The angels' research also showed that girls and boys are equally likely to be on either end of the problem. The difference is: boys tend to hack more or taunt each other through online games, while girls are more likely to do it through texts, chats, or e-mails.

While social networking sites, government leaders, law enforcement officials, and parents can curb the problem, the angels also have advice for youngsters who are targeted. Stop. Block and tell. Stop communicating online and don't become a perpetrator by retaliating. Block the offending party and tell an adult.

Parents can encourage their children to follow those steps by initiating conversations about cyberbullying. They can also be aware that youngsters often fear the problem will worsen or they will lose online freedom if they tell.

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