No longer is the struggle between bully and victim limited to the playground or face-to-face encounters. With advances in communications tools and a generation of tech-savvy young people, the matter of bullying is entering unchartered territory. Cyberbullies use emails, text messages, or Web sites to humiliate or threaten their targets, and they create a situation, complicated by factors like anonymity and jurisdiction, that can be difficult to resolve.
Two widely publicized cases of cyberbullying have captured national attention. After being bullied online and at school for months, 13-year-old Ryan Patrick Halligan of Vermont committed suicide in 2003. In 2006, Missouri teenager Megan Meier killed herself after being mercilessly harassed and deceived on MySpace, the popular social networking site. These tragedies, as well as other serious incidents, have raised interest in curbing cyberbullying through policy. But how widespread is the problem?
Online Harassment: Research and State Policy
In a recent survey, 34 percent of children ages 10 to 15 said they were harassed online at least once during the previous year. The online survey also found that eight percent reported being targeted monthly or more frequently. Another study, published in the same special issue of the Journal of Adolescent Health, found that 10 percent of children interviewed by telephone said they had been bullied online.
A number of states are taking action against the problem of bullying. For example, the EPE Research Center found that 34 states had anti-bullying or harassment regulations for schools in 2006. But fewer states have policies that specifically address cyberbullying. Nine states have passed legislation to identify and punish perpetrators of cyberbullying, and five more states are considering bills that address the issue, according to USA Today (February 6, 2008).
What People Are Saying About Cyberbullying
Delegate Craig L. Rice, who is proposing cyberbullying legislation in Maryland, notes the challenge of containing harmful information on a global network:
The problem is expanding exponentially. What used to be a bullying incident amongst six people in a high school hallway has now evolved into a national broadcast, a global broadcast, on the Internet.
Max Riley, superintendent of the Randolph School District in New Jersey, explains the difficulty school administrators face in disciplining actions that take place off school grounds:
The lines between home and school are continuing to blur with more expectations for schools to exercise authority in areas previously reserved for parents… I am leery of going too far and trying to regulate too much of private life, even though I abhor some of the things that kids put up on the Internet about each other.
Tim Peterson, director of curriculum for the Portage School District in Wisconsin, urges schools and legislators to punish the behavior of the harassment, not students’ access to the medium in which it takes place:
It's a cycle that feeds upon itself, and schools need to view the inappropriate behavior—not technology—as the problem…With each technological advance we have had in history, people find ways to use it for harm.
Elliot Zimmerman, a seasoned Florida cyberlaw lawyer, says schools do not have the authority to get involved in matters outside school grounds:
I don't think schools are equipped to handle these kinds of matters… As a disruption occurs in school, then they would have the jurisdiction to get involved as it happens ... I would contend that the school had absolutely no jurisdiction.
Michele Renee, advocate for victims of violence, says that parents, teachers, administrators and legislators to share the responsibility of teaching kids the dangers of Internet harassment:
As difficult as it may be to consider, parents and teachers alike need to talk about this subject at home and in the classroom. We need to raise awareness of this issue and be pro-active. At present, lawmakers are drafting laws to prevent and prosecute the perpetrators of these crimes. Education, vigilance, and strict laws are key in disarming bullies.
What do you think?
Who should be most accountable for stopping cyberbullying—parents, educators, or policymakers? What are the best strategies for prevention?
A version of this news article first appeared in the Echo Chamber blog.