Illinois is seemingly about to pass a law to criminalize any instances of cyberbullying that involve a direct threat to another person. Penalties include up to one year in jail for the first instance of harassing someone online, with repeat offenses leading to up to three years imprisonment. Oddly, the bill only mentions web sites or web pages and doesn’t cover other mediums through (or other venues in which) cyberbullying can occur. I figure that more and more of these bills will pop up in various state legislatures over the next year or so. I am concerned, however, that they might cause adults to rest on their laurels now that a law is on the books. There is so much to be done in terms of education, prevention, and extralegal responses. Laws are, and will never be, a panacea.
One of the first questions we are asked by media, parents, educators, and others who are unfamiliar with cyberbullying is simply: what is it? This is a lot more complicated question than one would assume. In our academic work, we define cyberbullying as “willful and repeated harm inflicted through the use computers, cell phones, or other electronic devices.” This definition, while useful, is fairly broad and ambiguous. When asking youth whether or not they have experienced cyberbullying, it is important to be very specific with what you are talking about. In fact, one of the primary reasons we see such a range of estimates about how many youth experience cyberbullying is because of definitional differences. In our most recent study, we informed youth that cyberbullying was: “when someone repeatedly makes fun of another person online or repeatedly picks on another person through email or text message or when someone posts something online about another person that they don’t like.” Obviously the key feature of cyberbullying that we want to highlight is its repetitive nature. While the technology or web environment employed may change (cell phone vs. computer; MySpace vs. Yahoo Chat vs. Facebook, etc), cyberbullying behaviors remain relatively consistent: using technology to repeatedly be hurtful to others. We’ll talk more about definitional issues on this blog because they are so important. Let us know your thoughts. Is there one definition of cyberbullying that is better than the others?