Enemies, an Online Story

With heavy hearts, a group of students from a prestigious Jerusalem junior high school went downstairs to the school library, one after the other. It happened about two weeks ago, in the middle of the school day. They did not understand why they had been called out in the middle of the lesson, before the surprised eyes of their classmates. The teacher's serious expression hinted that the reason was something major related to behavior. But a look around revealed that they were not the grade's problem children. On the contrary.

The uncertainty caused several of them to bite their fingernails. Each considered several possibilities. But they never imagined that they would be accused of participating in an Internet hate group against a classmate: They had responded to an online invitation from another student to participate in a hate group against the classmate on Facebook.

In defense, they claimed they had logged on solely out of curiosity, and noted that it happened a long time ago. "We didn't really mean it," several of them said. According to one of their mothers, "they didn't understand the gravity of the act."

Since this mother connects hate groups to anti-Semitism and racism, the idea that her son had joined the group shocked her. "I explained to my son that in Europe, in real life, such groups operate against Jews and immigrants. I asked him how he would feel as a Jew being excluded. Only then did he understand."

Aside from the headline that invited people to join a hate group against the boy in question, no threats or demands for ostracism were found on the relevant Facebook page. Nevertheless, he suffered harassment and ridicule. And the school treated the issue with great seriousness - perhaps because that morning, the boy's father had come to school and threatened to file a complaint with the police.

In the end, the students who joined the group were merely taken out of class for a few hours and brought to the library, and became the heroes of the hour. The boy who started the group was suspended for an entire day. However, all those involved in the affair also had to speak in class about the dangers of the Internet. And when other hate groups involving students from the school were discovered subsequently, the administration punished them, too.

Mom to the rescue

At around the time this incident occurred, another school in the city handled a similar situation very differently. The object of ridicule in this case was a teacher, and the content of the Facebook page was extremely insulting.

As soon as she found out about it, the teacher spoke to the class involved about what is permitted and forbidden when surfing the Net. For example, she explained to them that starting a hate group violates the libel laws, insults the victim's dignity and is liable to have criminal consequences. She said the students responded that they are under the age of criminal liability.

A short time after the lesson began, the teacher added, the mother of the student who started the hate group appeared at the classroom door and demanded that her son come out. It turned out that he had alerted his mother with a text message. In a joint conversation with the teacher and the guidance counselor, the mother said she knew about the hate group that her son began and saw nothing wrong with it.

In the end, therefore, the school did not punish the children who participated in the group. "We understood that if the parents treat the issue dismissively, there is nobody to talk to, so we have to initiate educational activity that will attract the children instead of punishing them," the teacher said.

The violence of the nerds

Hatred is evidently a common emotion in children's virtual world. Surfing the angry sites of 13- to 15-year-olds revealed that hate groups against teachers and classmates are standard practice. In addition, many acts of hooliganism occur on the Internet, such as a blog or a Facebook page being taken over by friends' derogatory comments.

On Israblog alone, there are almost 400 hate blogs - blogs whose declared purpose is to hate a certain person and mainly, for some reason, musical groups. On YouTube, we saw video clips of children beating up other children as well as pictures or video clips ridiculing children and teachers. "There was a case in which children placed their cell phone on the floor and photographed under the teacher's skirt and posted that on the Internet," one teacher said.

Hatred, it seems, is to a great extent replacing "depression" as the outstanding characteristic of adolescence. This situation raises the question of whether leaving children behind closed doors is turning them into little monsters.

Tami Saar, the Education Ministry's chief counselor for Internet ethics, noted that children have always ostracized unpopular classmates and played practical jokes on teachers; these phenomena have simply been transferred to the Internet. The problem is that now, they reach a much wider audience.

"That's the power of the Web," she said. "If someone posts pictures of a naked girl that was digitally edited, the entire world can see. It's the same violence, but 10 times as great."

In an Education Ministry survey of students in the fifth, eighth and twelfth grades, conducted last month in advance of International Internet Day, 30 percent of students reported seeing insulting postings or disseminating something hurtful to friends. However, this report may not be reliable: It seems likely that the phenomenon is more common than students want to admit.

Moreover, one third of the respondents saw no reason to be shocked, saying posting invective is not really harmful, because it is the norm on the Web. On the other hand, 80 percent of the students answered affirmatively to the question of whether something harmful on the Internet should be reported to an adult.

Finally, 70 percent reported that their parents do not know what they are doing on the Internet and do not take any interest. The mother of the boy against whom the hate group was formed, for instance, said that his 16-year-old brother was the one who, while he was surfing Facebook, noticed the invitation to join a group against his brother. "I have no clue about social networks," she said. "We were in shock."

Children have always been cruel to each other, but they used to conceal this world from adults. On the Internet, however, it is more difficult to blur the traces, and now that these phenomena are coming to light, the responsible adults are surprised and even confused.

"We were very hesitant as to how to behave," the victim's mother said. "But I'm happy we didn't tell him to ignore it. I think we opened the school's eyes when we pressured them to take strong action on the issue."

She added that the school should have known what was going on and engaged in preventive education. "This is the violence of the nerds. It is the violence of the next generation."

Nurit, whose 12-year-old daughter suffered Internet harassment by a classmate, said, "they hate everything now. That's the most prevalent word in children's language. How did such a strong world become so trivial?"

"Children don't know what the boundaries are," Nurit continued. "They don't know what's legal and what isn't. And the haplessness of the schools is being exposed."

After her daughter began a blog, Nurit said, one of her classmates started to leave her a series of curses and hurtful postings on the Web. "It happened when she entered seventh grade. Just when everyone is trying to find his place, they began to insult her, and that affected her social situation, so I decided to involve the school."

But instead of serving as an educational authority, she complained, the schools are transferring responsibility to the parents. "I say, you're encouraging the use of the computer, you're providing the tools, so provide rules of behavior, too. Educate during computer lessons as well."

The Education Ministry's department of information sciences and Internet ethics has devised impressive presentations, programs and activities on what is permitted and forbidden on the Web, as well as workshops for teachers to keep them abreast of what is going on in the children's world. The problem, said Dorit Behar, the ministry's chief supervisor for Internet ethics, is that schools do not give the issue high priority.

The teacher who was the victim of an Internet hate group, however, believes there is also a deeper reason. "The schools are hiding their heads in the sand because we know that the children are several steps ahead of us in the virtual world," she said. "It's frightening to deal with them."