Pulling the plug on Web attacks

As classmates cried, "Hit her," a Baltimore student pummeled an art teacher while another kid with a cell phone recorded the beating and posted it online. Likewise, teens in Florida taped themselves pounding a girl into unconsciousness, intending to take the footage public.

Are these broadcasts aberrations? Not at all. The search term "school fight" snares thousands of hits on YouTube.

Videos depicting, in sickening detail, the sounds of hands slapping faces and images of kids pushed to the ground are littering the social networks, frightening parents and allowing some young people to rewrite the playbook on being a schoolyard bully. Among today's tech-entrenched teens, it's not enough to merely rough someone up; the conquest must also be documented to bring the victor online glory and the loser exponentially multiplied humiliation.

Parry Aftab, who leads Wired Safety, an online organization that fights Internet abuse such as fraud and cyberstalking, has lost count of the violent videos she's watched online.

With the Baltimore and Florida beatings in the headlines and her phone ringing off the hook from concerned parents, she decided this week that she had to do something.

In the online world, hits define popularity. The more outrageous the material, the more plentiful the hits. The only solution, Aftab has concluded, is making the videos taboo for sites to post. Her reasoning is that if the videos can't lead to Internet notoriety, it will be pointless for kids to make them.

"It's a problem, and it's growing worse by the moment," she said. "If sites would stop putting this stuff up, the kids will stop doing it. I am coming."

When a girl in art class at Baltimore's Reginald F. Lewis High School attacked a teacher who asked her to sit down, another student in the class captured the incident on a cell phone and posted it on MySpace.

In Florida, a group of teenagers has been charged with kidnapping and assaulting a 16-year-old girl, apparently to teach her a lesson for talking trash about them online. As the teenagers beat the girl unconscious, they spoke about trying to make the video "good."

Scientists at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have begun to document and study the phenomenon of teenagers using technology to harass, bully, spread rumors, lie, threaten and tease. They say it's a new form of violence, and they've tagged it electronic aggression.

Though the field is still new, conditions have never been better for this type of violence to flourish - the CDC estimates more than 80 percent of adolescents own either a cell phone, a PDA or a computer with Internet access.

From 2000 to 2005, the CDC reports a 50 percent increase in youths claiming to be victims of some form of online harassment.

Though the school rumble is a well-seasoned concept, as is the idea of staging fights in public spots so that the crowd can toast the winner and shame the loser, the technology is taking the toasting and shaming to new levels. "For perpetrators, [posting a beating online] allows them to show off to a wider audience, even people that they don't know," said Laurence Steinberg, a Temple University psychology professor. "It's boasting more widely."

Aftab calls it "kids' 15 megabytes of fame."

Online, young people feel freer, less inhibited with their language, their sexuality and their aggression, says Sheri Parks, a University of Maryland professor who teaches a class on American culture in the Information Age .

The Internet is where kids can let their hair down and build up their self-esteem - friend by virtual friend. If the video they post about a school beating is popular, they feel popular, Parks said.

"It's a way of mattering," she said. "For these kids, the stage is not the classroom or the playground; the stage is the Internet. That's where it is important to matter."

Aftab says some of the young people filming the beatings half-way believe that they're actors in a reality show, posing for the camera and angling for the right shot. She says she doesn't think they realize that it's reality, that their hands are bruising real skin or that it could land them in a real jail cell.

"Once the Internet and multimedia is involved, everyone's an actor, everyone's a star," she said.

Kids in Baltimore, like kids everywhere, know how and where to find the violent videos.

China White, 12, a seventh-grader at Winston Middle School, has watched a few of them.

"When you see it at first, it's funny," she said. "But then when you think about it, it's not funny. It's trifling."

She thinks that the more attention the videos get, the better the chance that other kids will want to make their own - consequences be damned.

"If I see it then I might be like, 'I want to see if I can do it.' I know if I do it, I'll go to jail. But some people think it's cool."

Victoria Mitchell, 17, a student at Baltimore City College, watched the footage of the student beating the Reginald F. Lewis teacher. Though the attention these videos bring is undeniable, she said it's not the sort of fame she wants for herself.

"It might make you popular, but that person is actually getting hurt," she said. "That's not cool attention."

When Pam Riley, the executive director of Students Against Violence Everywhere sees such videos, she's particularly disturbed by the apparent lack of remorse. While being arrested, one of the suspects in the Florida beating asked if she'd still make cheerleading practice.

"In general, it's a reflection of our society's loss of civility," she said. "Not only was this individual disrespected, physically abused and humiliated, but the posting makes them feel like the entire world is seeing them in that compromising situation. How do we make that worldwide audience aware of the consequences?"

Aftab's plan involves grooming a "cyber-army" that would do nothing but troll the Internet, find offending material and force sites to remove it. Sites like YouTube do not police themselves; they rely on viewers to flag objectionable content.

"They're making money," she said. "Every time they post a fight video, they get more eyeballs. If there's a fight video, it's lots of money for [Rupert] Murdoch," she said, referring to the media mogul who owns the file-sharing site.

If the sites won't post the material, Aftab says, the kids will stop making it. Or at least she hopes so.

"We need to turn around as a community and say enough," she said. "Or somebody's going to get killed."