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Last Tuesday, the European Union signed a pact with seventeen social networking sites in Europe, including Facebook and MySpace. The goal of the pact was to curb the abuses of “cyberbullying” and to protect the privacy of underage users.
Cyberbullying refers to the use of the Internet, cell phones, or other devices to send or post text or images designed to hurt another person. With the ever-increasing availability of new technologies capable of such abuse, the trend has escalated in recent years. A 2006 study prepared for Isafe.org found that 42% of fourth through eighth graders report being the victims of online bullying. The problem gained national attention that year, when thirteen-year-old Megan Meir committed suicide after being cyberbullied through her MySpace account. Sadly, the perpetrator of the bullying was actually the mother of one of Megan’s former friends, who created a fake account in order to obtain incriminating information about Megan in retribution for alleged gossip Megan had spread about the woman’s daughter. The tragedy has led Meir’s parents to join the charge for legislation in the United States to protect children from such threats. A federal law against cyberstalking might be used to prosecute cyberbullies as well, but currently there is no federal law against cyberbullying in particular. As of 2007, at least seven states had passed laws prohibiting digital harassment.
The EU pact aims to cut down on such incidents through its new agreement with the social networks themselves. The use of social networks has grown more than 35% in the past year and is expected to double over the next three years. The pact ensures that private profiles of underage users are not searchable on website search engines, and will make the default setting for underage users private. Also, the sites will now feature an easily accessible “report abuse” button, allowing users to report inappropriate contact.
While there currently is not a national policy in the United Sates, forty-nine state attorneys general have signed similar agreements with MySpace and Facebook. Unfortunately, the same 2006 ISafe.org study found that 58% of victims had not reported the abuse to an adult, so it remains to be seen whether these measures will actually have an affect on cyberbullying through social networking sites.
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