‘Zoom Bombing’ Is A Pandemic Thing; It’s Also A Bullying Thing

ACROSS AMERICA — The timing of the “Zoom bombing” in a high-profile federal court hearing Friday in Georgia made it especially hurtful, but it’s emblematic of the intrusions that courts, schools, businesses and government councils are confronting as they gather online during the coronavirus pandemic.

Zoom bombing — to be clear, it happens on Google Meet and other videoconferencing platforms, too — is a relatively new form of cyberbullying that’s exposing everyone from kindergartners to senior court judges and a lot of people in between to behaviors that range from benign hijinks to racist screeds to criminal conduct.

And, some kids are still bullying other kids, finding new ways in virtual classrooms to torment their classmates.

Friday was the 19th anniversary of the 9/11 terror attacks, and an intruder going by the username “Osama” took control of an online hearing and flashed videos and still images of the terror attacks, swastikas and pornography.

The images were seen by about 100 participants in the hearing before court officials quickly shut it down. It resumed after the “waiting room” feature was switched on, allowing court officials to control entry — an example of the learn-as-you-go model for holding necessary gatherings while observing social distancing guidelines.

“Right now, we’re in a really interesting time because the pandemic has unquestionably created an increase in the use of digital platforms,” said New York City social worker Amanda Fialk, whose clients include some members of an Alcoholics Anonymous group who were bombarded with “hurtful, racist and inappropriate” images and videos during their online meeting.

“Whenever we see an increase in screen time, we’re going to see an increase in cyberbullying,” said Fialk, the chief of clinical services for The Dorm, a mental health treatment community for young adults.

Zoom, which saw exponential growth in both revenues and use of its platform in the second quarter when millions of Americans were self-isolating in their homes, has updated its default settings so meeting hosts can more easily control screen sharing, remove and report participants, and lock meetings.

Google and other tech businesses that offer videoconferencing have done the same.

“We take meeting disruptions seriously and, where appropriate, we work closely with law enforcement authorities,” Zoom said in an emailed statement to Patch. “We encourage users to report any incidents of this kind to Zoom and law enforcement authorities so the appropriate action can be taken against offenders.”

Intrusions May Be Criminal

Online party crashing was a problem before the pandemic pushed millions of Americans online for activities that previously were held in person. Although there’s no data to support how often this form of cyberbullying occurs, it’s frequent enough that the FBI and other law enforcement agencies are taking a closer look at the problem.

A Madison, Connecticut, teenager was charged with several computer crimes after police said he intentionally disrupted an online class last spring with language and gestures that police Capt. Joseph Race told Patch went “beyond crude and obscene and disruptive.”

“If you walked past a classroom and a teacher was being treated this way, being interrupted in class with screaming, obscene comments about all sorts of things, some crude, some rude, some obnoxious, face-to-face, it would be absolutely arrest-able,” Race said.

After several instances of video hijacking in Michigan last spring, U.S. Attorney Matthew Schneider, Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel and several others warned intruders they could face a raft of federal charges for computer crimes, hate crimes and other serious violations.

“You think Zoom bombing is funny? Let’s see how funny it is after you get arrested,” Schneider said in a statement last spring. “If you interfere with a teleconference or public meeting in Michigan, you could have federal, state or local law enforcement knocking at your door.”

Federal prosecutors and attorneys general in other states also warned early on in the pandemic that residents of their states shouldn’t take for granted that videoconferencing sessions are secure.

Companies such as Zoom and Google have tweaked their platforms to make it more difficult for hackers to permeate videoconferences. But until the people organizing and managing the meetings learn all the tools at their disposal, unwelcome guests may still pop in.

When virtual classes resumed this fall in Paterson, New Jersey, profanity, verbal threats and pornography made it into about half of the classrooms after students shared their Google classroom link with others who weren’t enrolled in the class, schools Superintendent Eileen Shafer said.

District officials are working with Google to prevent future disruptions, and they contacted local and county police investigators to determine if the intruder should be criminally charged. Students could face disciplinary action.

“We’re not going to have people enter our classes,” Shafer told CBS Local. “If we were in a physical building, we wouldn’t allow students to go into another class and deliberately disrupt it.”

A New Way To Exclude Kids

Cyberbullying in virtual schools isn’t as simple as hijacking an online classroom’s videoconference and bombing the group with inappropriate and offensive images. In many cases, bullying is more nuanced and more difficult to detect, said Kathy Grey, the vice president in charge of education for No Bully, one of the nation’s preeminent anti-bullying education organizations.

“We’re learning without the data being written yet,” Grey said.

But one thing is certain: Bullying didn’t go away when schools shuttered last spring.

“It’s still happening online, and with teachers in the Zoom room not always tech-savvy, kids in their breakout rooms have the ability to mute one another — a way of isolating someone,” Grey said. “What we’re seeing is that bullying that happened in person continues to get played out in social media and online.”

Kids are under enough stress without having to cope with cyberbullying, she said.

“All kids to some degree are returning to school under a different form of trauma because of the pandemic and unrest around racial inequality,” Grey said. “Many students have lost someone, many have family members who are sick or first responders, or they may have someone in their family stopped by the cops or hurt in a protest.”

Whether classes are held in a physical or virtual classroom, “it’s critical that students feel like they belong,” Grey said.

More Opportunities For Cyberbullying

A new study published this month in the International Journal of Bullying Prevention underscores that.

Researchers at New York University’s nursing college found more than half of U.S. adolescents and teens have at least some experience with cyberbullying.

Their study also found that kids who feel supported and loved by their parents are less likely to engage in cyberbullying. The study was based on answers by 12,642 U.S. preteens and teenagers in the most recent World Health Organization Health Behavior in School-Aged Children survey.

The coronavirus pandemic has sidelined millions of students and parents in home classrooms and offices, adding stressors to the family dynamic that could increase cyberbullying, according to Laura Grunin, the author of the study published earlier this month in the International Journal of Bullying Prevention.

“With remote learning replacing classroom instruction for many young people, and cell phones and social media standing in for face-to-face interaction with friends, there are more opportunities for cyberbullying to occur,” Grunin said in a news release.

The study didn’t prove that a lack of parental support is a direct cause of cyberbullying; however, Grunin pointed out, “it does suggest that children’s relationships with their parents might influence their bullying behaviors.”

Grey doesn’t dispute the public health issues at stake in the decision by many schools to hold classes virtually. But she said it's incumbent on the adults supervising them to make sure the mental health needs of kids — especially those targeted by bullies — are being met as well.

The virtual classroom isn’t a great equalizer. It’s far from it, exposing far more about a student’s home life than the neighborhood school ever could.

“Kids are already feeling loss and isolation — loss of community, and for some kids, even the sanctuary of their schools,” Grey said. “Many of these kids live in communities that are at higher risk for isolation and to be affected by the pandemic and racial inequality.”

Fixing the videoconferencing controls to prevent intrusions is the easy part of the adjustment to online school, she said.

“We need to bring in that connection to bullying prevention and social and emotional learning,” Grey said. “If you understand it, you will be more empathetic.”

Without those candid discussions, she said, “it just puts them further behind academically but socially as well.”

Menace Of Bullies: A Patch Series

Bullying is a confounding national crisis that many consider nothing short of murder. Children are killing themselves to avoid vicious harassment, much of it online. In a nationwide series of reports now in its third year, Patch journalists tell stories of bullying and torment across the United States, and what schools and parents are doing to protect children and end this scourge. Read these selected stories from the Menace of Bullies series on Patch.

Have a tip or a story to share? Email bullies@patch.com

This article originally appeared on the Across America Patch