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?