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Germany

'Anonymous gossip websites are the new bathroom-stall graffiti'

Gone are the days when the school bully would lurk in an alley, waiting to steal an unsuspecting middle-schooler's lunch money. Now the German family minister is taking aim at the new cyber-bullies of the 21st century.

a teen on a computer

Today's bullies needn't be stronger - just faster typers

Berlin plans to take a hard line against a new trend in German schools - online cyber-bullying.

"A society in which child and youth protection mean something cannot simply allow such a development," Family Minister Kristina Schröder told the Thursday edition of the Wiesbadener Kurier newspaper.

Her announcement came just days after a well-publicized incident in which a 17-year-old in Berlin was badly beaten as an online conflict escalated into real-world violence. The victim had apparently tried to confront the boyfriends of a group of girls who had been insulting his girlfriend on the website 'iShareGossip.'

Anonymity hurts

girls in a park

Bullies often have their cronies do the dirty work

Even if cyber-bullying never makes the jump to actual blows, the anonymity provided by websites like 'iShareGossip,' can make the insults traded there particularly hurtful, says Jonathon, a 15-year old at Fichtenberg High School in the Steglitz district of Berlin.

"There are so many posts, and you have no idea who wrote them, and you sit in class and think, 'maybe that guy sitting next to me wrote it, or maybe it was even someone who I see everyday and say 'hi' to," Jonathon said.

Family Minister Schröder said she has asked the government youth media watchdog to consider monitoring the site and indexing it, which would mean it would not be able to be found by German search engines.

"No one needs to try to make this into a debate about censorship," Schröder told the Wiesbadener Kurier. "Here are young people viciously insulting one another and dragging the reputations of others - particularly young girls - through the dirt under the cloak of anonymity."

Yet, not everyone agrees that the anonymity of the Internet is at the root of the cyber-bullying problem.

screenshot from isharegossip

Online bullying has led to real-world conflict

"Gossip message boards are not very different from the graffiti on the bathroom stall of 20 years ago," said Klaus Seifried, head of a juvenile psychological advisory center in Berlin, in an interview with German broadcaster RBB.

"The real difference is that while maybe one or even 10 people saw what was written on the bathroom stall, the nature of the Internet means that now 1,000 people can easily read the same small-minded insults," Seifried said.

Taking a stand

But unlike simply sending in a janitor to paint over a wall of graffiti, combating cyber-bullying has proven more difficult. Many schools feel it's not their responsibility to deal with what students do online, says Kristine Kretschmer, an activist with the anti-bullying initiative SeitenStark. However, that doesn't mean bullied students are helpless.

"With sites like 'iShareGossip,' which is organized according to the name of the school, you can always make screenshots of the material either to give to the school so that it can be dealt with directly, or - if you know who the perpetrator is - turn it in to the police."

Author: Sarah Harman
Editor: Nancy Isenson

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