Cyberbullying Pushing Kids Over the Edge

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CHESTERFIELD, Mo. -- An alarming number of young people are being bullied today, and it's no longer limited to school.

The disturbing world of "cyberbullying" is pushing kids over the edge.

Doctors diagnosed Megan Meier with depression and attention deficit disorder in the third grade.

Megan's mother, Tina Meier, said throughout school, bullies constantly targeted Megan because of her appearance.

"Megan, for so long, had such low self esteem because of her weight," Meier told CBN News.

Eventually, Megan's parents decided to put her in private school. Tina said things got better.

"For eighth grade, though, she started blossoming, started smiling, and laughing," Meier recalled. "She started working out and exercising and losing weight; feeling better about herself."

One Message, Lives Forever Changed

However, three weeks before her fourteenth birthday party, a message on Megan's MySpace page gave her a jolt.

It came from a friend named "Josh," who Megan described as a boy who thought she was pretty.

"So Megan got on, and the message from Josh from the night before was, 'You heard me. No one likes you. No one wants to be friends with you," Meier explained.

The bullying then exploded with messages and bulletins going out to hundreds of kids.

"The messages were horrendous," Meier said. "They were not just, 'I don't like you anymore.' They called Megan all kinds of horrible names, talking about her weight, the way that she looked, cursing. I mean using things that are unbelievable."

It caused Megan to sob hysterically, and she ran to her room.

A short time later, the 13-year-old committed suicide, hanging herself in her bedroom closet.

"Every single dream, every hope, everything she wanted to be was gone in two hours," her mother said. "Two hours on a computer and that life that was so precious was gone."

Digital Intimidation

Megan Taylor Meier became a victim of "cyberbullying," a growing problem in which people use technology to harass and intimidate.

Her mother later learned that "Josh" never existed. According to a police report, an adult neighbor, her daughter with whom Megan had a falling out and another person created the phony account.

The police report revealed their goal was to gain Megan's confidence to find out what she was saying online about the daughter and other people.

A court found the adult neighbor guilty of taking part in the hoax, but a federal judge overturned the conviction, saying it was unconstitutional.

Foundation Formed

Not wanting other kids to go through what happened to her daughter, Tina founded the Megan Meier Foundation, just over a year after her daughter passed away.

The anti-bullying non-profit, which started in her basement, is now known worldwide.

Meier hopes to use the foundation to sound the alarm about the growing danger of cyberbullying.

According to a recent MTV/Associated Press study, 76 percent of young adults, aged 14 to 24, call digital abuse a serious problem for people their age.

Fifty-six percent reported they have experienced abuse through social and digital media.

Fourteen-year-old Sydney Wilhelm volunteers at the foundation. She said a group of girls cyberbullied her to the point that she started cutting herself and contemplated suicide.

"It was through Facebook, AIM, and YouTube," Wilhelm told CBN News.

"They would, like, post on each other's walls about me, and they would just say, like, rude things over and over again," she said.

A friend of the family saw a disturbing post online and notified Wilhelm's parents.

"We've had a lot of discussions with Sydney so that she continues to bring things forward to us," Chris Wilhelm, Sydney's father, told CBN News.

"It's not her fault, and I think that's what kids need to understand is it's not their fault why this is happening," he said. "They need to bring it forward. They need to come clean."

First Line of Defense

Donna Rice Hughes, president of the Internet safety organization Enough Is Enough, said parents need to be the first line of defense for their children.

The group's "Internet Safety 101" program empowers parents and educators to deal with cyberbullying.

"It can go viral very quickly," Hughes explained to CBN News. "So in the old form of bullying, it may stay contained -- that abuse."

"But when the technology is used, then all of a sudden, a hundred, or a thousand, or a million people can see what is happening to the person being bullied," she said.

Child advocates are pushing schools and governments to develop policies and laws.

"If you don't, then you need to get those things in place because schools can actually be liable in some instances," Hughes said.

Meier worked closely with State Sen. Scott Rupp, R-Dist. 2, and Missouri Gov. Matt Blunt's Internet task force to help pass a law that makes Internet harassment and stalking criminal offenses.

Maine's Proposed Measure

The National Conference of State Legislatures reports that more than 30 states have enacted legislation to protect kids from online bullying.

Maine may be one of the next state's to pass a cyberbullying law. However, lawmakers are divided over its impact on basic rights, especially freedom of speech and religion.

"As a Christian, I'm concerned for Christian kids in schools that may feel bullied to some extent themselves, and that's really not mentioned," State Rep. Ellie Espling, R-Dist. 105, said.

"It's more about sexual preference and transgender and things like that, so there's just a lot of red flags," she said.

"What's more important here? Losing a life or the language in the bill?" State Rep. Donald Pilon, D-Dist. 133, asked.

"But as I said, the Maine Civil Liberties Union and I have been working together, and they are supportive of the bill," he said.

While Maine and other states grapple with legislation, cyberbullying victim Sydney Wilhelm presses on, creating and maintaining a new Facebook page titled "The Stand Against Bullying."

And Meier continues to spread her daughter's tragic story around the world, so the dreams of other kids have the opportunity to come true.

*Original broadcast October 24, 2011. 

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Mark Martin is a reporter and anchor at CBN News, covering various issues from military matters to alternative fuels. Mark has reported internationally in the Middle East and traveled to Bahrain to cover stories on the U.S.S. Dwight D. Eisenhower. Follow Mark on Twitter @MarkMartinCBN and "like" him at Facebook.com/MarkMartinCBN.