Kids are mean
Children are cruel creatures. This is not new nor should we be surprised. What’s different now is that there is a record of it. Before what happened on the playground stayed on the playground. But when insults can be exchanged online, there is a persistent record of the taunts. This persistence can be more stressful for the “cyber-victim”, because unlike a simple verbal jab, it isn’t ephemeral, and presents the opportunity for many to jump on the dog pile.
The other – in my opinion, probably unfortunate – difference between “traditional” and “cyber” bullying is that now adults can read the insults against their children or students word for word. Imagine if someone provided your parents with every insult you said as a child along with every insult you received. Yes, there would be a clusterstorm.
Let’s stop kids from being mean
Let’s convert the Pope to Judaism too!
I’ve found the “adult” reaction to cyberbullying to be like an episode of South Park: the children are really mean to each other and the adults overreact in a comically irrational way. This past summer, ABC Family released a film Cyberbully to inform folks about the dangers of cyberbullying (and probably also to capitalize on the brouhaha). You can probably guess the plot, but I’ll summarize it pictorially (please pardon the misuse of memes):
I don’t want to give the impression that I don’t think cyberbullying isn’t an important issue, but I’m always cautious when someone’s reaction to a situation is to try to pass a law without examining any alternative options first.
What about the laws in those states?
Can we send the evil bully to prison?
Actually, in the Great State of Missouri, cyber-harassment is a Class D felony – punishable by up to four years imprisonment – along with a third DUI conviction and fraud.
Personally I fail to see what is reasonable about dealing with problems between children through legal means. If the anti-cyberbullying activists claim cyberbullying is so dangerous because digital harassment is persistent, how does sending another kid to court lessen the time the original harassment is an issue?
Legal action should be a last resort (this is a normative claim!). There are much better options for everyone’s sake available. In ABC Family’s movie Cyberbully, the bullying stopped when the protagonist simply stood up for herself and when her mother confronted the parents of the offending children. We don’t always need to make new laws, when a new technology emerges; we just need to figure out how to solve the same problems that we’ve dealt with for generations… but online. In Cyberbully, despite its portrayal, the internet is not to blame for bullying, people are.
I think part of the reason for the severity of these cyberbullying statutes is that we actually dehumanize the bullies. Just as the cyberbullies are willing to make more obscene statements because they aren’t in front of their victims in real life, we are willing to deal with these cyberbullies because our image of these cyberbullies is some internet Beelzebub rather than another child.
Law vs. Code
Could this discussion be applied to this topic?
That ABC Family movie told the story of how harassment on a site, which is a thinly-veiled stand in for Facebook, could get out of hand. The movie emphasized that profiles could be fake, information could exist forever, and that there is no “delete button.” The family resorts to lobbying for a law, but if we look at these particular grievances, Facebook is actually quite good about having code mechanisms for dealing with this set of issues.
- There actually is a delete button
- Facebook in my cases requires email verification to join a particular network, so the risk of someone faking a profile that would be reasonably believably is slight
- You can report fake profiles:
//It would have been really easy for friends, who were too afraid to say anything, to anonymously report and end the entire situation
Solving a problem
I quick Google search for cyberbullying turns up www.stopcyberbullying.org the website of an organization dedicated to stopping the scourge of cyberbullying. The site has information for children, parents, politicians, and law enforcement. It didn’t take much browsing to come across this gem:
One of their categories of cyberbullies is the called “Revenge of Nerds.” Its description includes this quote: “Because of this and their tech skills, they can be the most dangerous of all cyberbullies.” Ah yes, nerds are indeed the laser-armed sharks of the internet.
This “charming” website has advice to offer schools: you too can enact “regulations” to stop cyberbullying no matter how much this would infringe on the Constitutional rights of students. The site says:
“If schools are creative, they can sometimes avoid the claim that their actions exceeded their legal authority for off-campus cyberbullying actions. We recommend that a provision is added to the school’s acceptable use policy reserving the right to discipline the student for actions taken off-campus if they are intended to have an effect on a student or they adversely affect the safety and well-being of student while in school. This makes it a contractual, not a constitutional, issue.”
I’m always impressed by a website when they provide persons of authority ways of circumventing Constitutional protections against overzealous school administrators.
Some problems don’t have solutions
X2 = -1, yes, a solution exists but it’s imaginary
Bullying has been around since at and before the dawn of man. Unfortunately there’s no way to end it. It isn’t as simple as passing a law – people break laws, and they do so frequently. When faced with the inevitability of bullying, rather than trying to eradicate it, we should focus more on teaching children (and adults) how to cope with it. Alas, that would be too reasonable.