Last winter when Sameer and I were writing the third edition of Bullying Beyond the Schoolyard (published last fall!), we spent quite a bit of time searching for unique examples of cyberbullying to include in the book. One of the more interesting cases I came across involved a 14-year-old girl from Beal City, Michigan. I hadn’t thought much about this case since researching it over a year ago, until I recently saw a mention of it on social media. Coincidentally, then, a few days later a video appeared on my TikTok For You page from a creator who makes fascinating short videos of remarkable court cases (like 3-minute versions of Dateline). The story the creator was sharing sounded familiar when it dawned on me that it was that same cyberbullying case from Michigan that I wrote about for the book. That’s when I realized that I hadn’t seen a lot of discussion about the incident, and so perhaps many people still hadn’t heard about it.

It all started in October of 2021, when the 14-year-old began to receive hurtful and threatening text messages through Instagram and Snapchat. Her boyfriend was also targeted. The messages kept coming for over a year, sometimes dozens per day. The teen didn’t know who was sending the messages, but based on what was being said, it seemed like it had to be someone from her high school. (Specific examples of the messages have not been released to the public.)

The teen confided in her mother, Kendra Licari, and she contacted the high school. Ms. Licari was also the school’s girls’ basketball coach. Since most of the messages were sent off school grounds and didn’t involve school devices, school officials contacted the local Sheriff’s department to assist in the investigation. In January of 2022, the teen met with Isabella County Sheriff Michael Main to explain what had happened over the previous several months. She told him that the messages began after she didn’t attend a Halloween party that she and her boyfriend had been invited to. The Sheriff reviewed hundreds of pages of messages that were saved and did some basic forensic review to attempt to determine their origin. He discovered that the aggressor had used a Virtual Private Network (VPN) to cover their tracks, which hampered his rudimentary digital forensics skills. He then resorted to good old-fashioned police work, and talked to several Bay City students to try to discern where the messages had come from.

But these efforts led him nowhere.

After a few months of investigating and still no leads on who was responsible, the Sheriff contacted the FBI’s Cyber division to ask for more sophisticated forensic help. Eventually an FBI analyst was able to identify additional IP addresses associated with the messages and determine that some were connected to Kendra Licari—yes, that’s right—the victim’s 42-year-old mother. When police confronted Ms. Licari, she admitted to sending the messages. She was arrested and charged with stalking a minor, using a computer to commit a crime, and obstruction of justice. In April of 2023, she plead guilty to two counts of stalking a minor and was sentenced to 19 months to five years in prison.

To this date, no motive for the abuse is known.

I’ve seen this story widely characterized as an example of “catfishing.” I don’t think that is an appropriate description since the mother wasn’t trying to lure her daughter into a fake romantic relationship or extort money or something else from her. She was simply sending demeaning and threatening messages over and over to her daughter from anonymous and pseudonymous accounts, making her life miserable.

Isabella County Prosecutor David Barbari described the incident as “cyber Munchausen’s syndrome” but I don’t think that is accurate either since Munchausen’s syndrome is associated with a person faking or intentionally producing their own symptoms of illness (see our related work on digital self-harm). More apt would be “Munchausen Syndrome by Proxy” (also referred to as “Factitious Illness by Proxy” or “Factitious Disorder Imposed on Another”), where a caregiver (usually a parent—and most often a mother) makes up, exaggerates, or induces health symptoms in a child under their care. Often this is done for the purposes of attracting attention, or due to an underlying psychological disorder in the caregiver (e.g., somatoform disorder or factitious disorder).

Even though this is an exceptional case, there are lessons that can be learned from it. First, it is important to keep an open mind about who the aggressor might be when investigating instances of cyberbullying. We offered this same advice when we first learned about digital self-harm over a decade ago. When a child is being targeted online, gather as much information as possible to understand what is happening, why it is happening, and who might be involved. Our research demonstrates that nearly 75% of the time the perpetrators are peers from within the target’s social circle. But that means that 25% of the time, they are not.

Furthermore, it is a good reminder that in the end, it is difficult to be completely anonymous online. Ms. Licari had a background in information technology which gave her some skills to know how to cover her tracks. In addition to the VPN, she used alternative IP addresses and software to make it look like the messages were coming from specific area codes and phone numbers in an effort to implicate other students at the school. Ultimately, though, authorities with the proper forensic investigation skills were able to connect her to the messages. We shouldn’t be lured into a false sense of complete anonymity when interacting online, especially when it comes to engaging in inappropriate behaviors.

While this is seemingly an isolated, unique example of cyberbullying (at least in terms of the relationship between the aggressor and target), it might not be as rare as we think. Research shows that Munchausen Syndrome by Proxy occurs among one out of every 200,000 children under the age of sixteen (and more than five times that rate for children under the age of one). It is conceivable that online manifestations of these behaviors are occurring with at least as much frequency as the conventional forms. Research is needed to better understand the scope, nature, and causes of “digital Munchausen Syndrome by Proxy.”
The post When Your Mother is Your Cyberbully appeared first on Cyberbullying Research Center.