Killing The Messenger: Cyber-Bullying Laws

I'm not about to stick up for bullies: as a nerd in middle school and high school I received my fair share of abuse, and believe me I have no love for the S.O.B.s. Frankly, I hope they're dead (if that's shocking to you, then you probably weren't ever the victim of bullying). But the recent trend towards legislation to prevent "cyber-bullying" seems way off-base.

No question, bullying (cyber- or otherwise) is sociopathic and potentially very dangerous behavior: this was tragically illustrated by the recent case of a 15-year-old girl in Massachusetts who committed suicide after enduring threats from six other teenagers. And it's ubiquitous: currently the Louisiana legislature is considering a bill that would criminalize cyber-bullying when the object of the bullying is under the age of 17. Last year a national law was proposed by Linda Sanchez, a Congresswoman from California, prompted by the much-publicized case of Megan Meier, a 13-year-old who was allegedly driven to suicide by an adult posing as a teenage boy.

While the intent of these bills is admirable, they all miss the point: basically, they are confusing the medium and the message (apologies to Marshall). Social networks are just the latest in a series of new communication technologies -- preceded by writing, telegraphs, telephones, email -- all of which are simply extensions of the baseline: direct face-to-face interaction. If you somehow manage to control bullying via social networks, it will simply shift to these other communications channels. Is bullying via the mail in poison-pen letters illegal? How about over the phone? Why single out cyber-bullying?

This is wrong-headed because the problem isn't social networks, or email, or texting: it's the bullies, and the fact that adults are either unaware of or unwilling to stop bullying when it's happening. Indeed, one of the parents who spoke in support of the Louisiana cyber-bullying bill told the local newspaper that law enforcement and the school principal haven't done anything to stop her 13-year-old daughter from being bullied.

While it strikes me as equally quixotic, maybe a more direct way of dealing with this problem would be to make bullying of any kind illegal? Failing that, maybe adults who are supposed to protect the children under their care in school and elsewhere could step up and, you know, do something?

4 comments about "Killing The Messenger: Cyber-Bullying Laws".
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  1. Karen Bunn, April 20, 2010 at 5:57 p.m.

    Totally agree! The cool thing about cyber-bullying is that you have an electronic record of it. Now the bullies can't lie about what they've done. Each instance of cyber-bullying can and should be counted against the perpetrator just the way child pornographers can be tracked online.

  2. John Jainschigg from World2Worlds, Inc., April 20, 2010 at 10:49 p.m.

    Hmm. I would agree with you, if it looked as though the proposed law would burden social network providers or unduly limit exercise of free speech by users. But it really doesn't. All it does is explicitly criminalize a certain kind of strongly negative behavior conducted online. In this, it would seem to share legal and philosophical DNA both with hate-speech legislation and with older bodies of law aimed at controlling forms of abuse that pivot on capabilities and characteristics of a particular (often trans-jurisdictional) medium, e.g., mail-fraud law, telephone-harassment law, etc.

    Thinking along these lines, it's hard to argue that the internet doesn't offer juvenile bullies new, unique and spine-chilling means and contexts for creating peer-to-peer misery -- including the ability to harass anonymously; to impersonate convincingly over long spans of time; to easily gain access to personal information and cross boundaries into 'trusted spaces' (e.g., to get friended by someone on Facebook, giving the harasser access to new levels of information, friends lists, realtime whereabouts and other personal data); to harass 24/7 across multiple domains (no refuge); and to humiliate at epic scale and in permanence (e.g., your daughter's personal diary, posted globally, online forever).

    I would also argue that -- while members of both sexes surely commit and suffer bullying and harassment -- the affordances of internet and social-network bullying (anonymity, impersonation, denial of refuge, gossip, betrayal of confidences, public affronts to reputation) seem peculiarly well-suited both to victimizing girls and to enabling (among other paradigms of harassment) the sort of baroque, highly-socialized, covertly-violent interpersonal 'campaigning' described by Rosalind Wiseman ('Queen Bees and Wannabees') and other sociologists of contemporary teen culture.

    I'm not sure how effective these laws are likely to be in obtaining convictions (or even if that's the point), but at least they call attention to a unique new aspect of what -- as you suggest -- is a universal problem.

  3. Sarah Montague from Mom Central Consulting, April 21, 2010 at 12:52 a.m.

    I am a parent and a marketer. This issue is hugely complex. Parent involvement is critical to teach any young person how to protect themselves. This involves physical safety, emotional safety, knowing the difference between when to stand up for yourself and when to get others involved. But there are kids living completely different lives on the Web. Look at Frontline's (PBS award winning show) called Growing Up on the Internet (it is online.) Look at how our social media world has really turned the concept of boundaries upside down. In the last two weeks alone,I have learned of at least 3 different companies that are positioned to help parents monitor and manage their kids reputation online. And they are getting more than just Angel funding to get started. I think we need parents, kids, schools, web sites and legal entities looking at this. @sarahmontague

  4. Douglas Eckelkamp from Epsilon, April 21, 2010 at 11:27 a.m.

    I couldn't disagree with you more (except that part about disdain for bullies). This is not an issue of blaming the medium, rather its an issue of holding people accountable for their actions. Technology is changing quickly and we need laws that keep up with these changes.

    Cyber Bullying is an insidious crime. It sneaks into the home and abuses silently. There will always be bullies and no laws can fully stop them. But when we were kids the home was always a refuge from the torment that bullies could instill. Now however, between text messages and Facebook posts, there is no longer a safe haven for these victims.

    Yes we have freedom of speech, but we also have laws that say you can't yell fire in a croweded movie house. With free speach comes responsibilty and accountablity. We need tough laws that keep up with the changes in technology, whether they be for cyber bullying, child predators or other crimes.

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