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When I was growing up, we got to play the Oregon Trail computer game at school on the giant, classroom computer for about fifteen minutes each week. Now, kids have access to the Internet twenty-four hours a day via personal computers and smart phones. In addition, they are capable of constant and instant communication through email and texting, not to mention social networking sites like Facebook and MySpace. While this widespread access to technology undoubtedly provides benefits, it also creates the potential for an unprecedented form of bullying.
The anonymity the Internet provides allows bullies to hurl insults without having to face their victims, and the constant barrage of abuse that this can create for some kids can be quite overwhelming. In addition, the situation is worsened by the generation gap between today’s teens and their parents and teachers. Many adults are largely unfamiliar with these newer forms of communication, and are therefore unaware of the potential for abuse. As a result, parents and schools are unable to provide the same level of supervision they’ve provided in the past.
This situation has caught the attention of state and federal legislators in recent years. The Megan Meier Cyberbullying Prevention Act, a federal bill proposing criminal sanctions for cyberbullying, was introduced in the House of Representatives in April 2009. Several states have also introduced or passed legislation criminalizing cyberbullying. In the wake of Phoebe Prince’s suicide this year, the call to legislate has grown only louder. Just last week, a bill proposing to criminalize cyberbullying was introduced in the Louisiana legislature.
Unfortunately, however, teenagers are notorious for ignoring the legal ramifications of their actions: for instance, there is evidence that many teens ignore new laws that prohibit texting while driving. That fact, coupled with concerns about vague statutory language that might lead to over-broad application of criminal cyberbullying laws, has led some commentators to express concern that some kids will be punished harshly for behavior that might best be handled outside a courtroom. One commentator pointed out that the national panic might be overstating the prevalence of cyberbullying. Others criticize the laws as redundant and ineffective.
In light of these concerns, perhaps legislators should abandon the knee-jerk criminal legislation in favor of a more creative approach to cyberbullying. One such method would focus on prevention. The Anti-Defamation League has drafted a Model Cyberbullying Prevention Statute, that “requires school districts to adopt an anti-bullying policy,” and provide training to teachers on how to monitor and handle cyberbullying. This model statute provides for consequences and punishments dictated by the schools, as opposed to the state. Another potential solution involves outreach and support for victims: Boston has had success with a bullying hotline. Moreover, education for both parents and students would also contribute a great deal to the effort to combat cyberbullying. Finally, working with networking sites directly could aid states in protecting would-be victims of cyberbullying. Facebook contributed to this effort by launching its new “Safety Center” on April 13 of this year.
Hopefully some combination of prevention, education, and outreach will allow states to effectively address cyberbullying. One thing, however, is certain: ignoring this issue by stating it’s “kids being kids” is not an option.
– Emily Larish
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