I just read an interesting article covering a topic that is frequently brought to our attention when we speak at conferences – cell phones and sexually-explicit images of teenagers being circulated among peers. The bottom line is that we have got to figure out the best way to get kids to think hard and seriously about the implications of content they create or post or send getting into the wrong hands. It is largely inevitable, but youth naively assume that it will stay private and protected by a small, intended audience. The image started out “as a summertime joke between the ninth-grader and her friends.” How many of us have taken a picture of ourselves naked – even as a joke? Wait, don’t answer that. In keeping with my previous post – this picture could be tagged (with her name? with her contact information?) and shared on one of the numerous photo-sharing and photo-gallery web sites out there, and she would suffer the rest of her life from the humiliation. Let’s hope law enforcement are able to confiscate every device on which this picture is found, and scrub those flash memory cards and hard drives minty clean. And let’s try to remind everyone that possession and transmission of this sort of stuff is usually a Class I felony across the United States.
This story, which involves a digitally-recorded video of three teens throwing a 32-ounce soda on a girl working the window at a Taco Bell drive-thru, is a newer iteration of cyberbullying which we’re seeing more often. The boys posted the video on YouTube, which led to repeated embarrassment and humiliation for the girl. She was bold and savvy enough to discover the identity of the boys and report them to law enforcement – which deserves commendation. I only wish that the punishment handed down by the judge was better conceived. I think that shaming in general can be highly-effective when dealing with real-world wrongdoing simply because we care a great deal about our social standing and the way that we’re perceived by others. I just don’t know if shaming is an effective sanction when dealing with online harassment because the culture as a whole hasn’t collectively shunned and denounced the act (like the real-world offenses of child abuse and rape have been denounced). There is not really any negative stigma associated with cyberbullying in our society, and so shaming is not the best punitive option.
This case involving an eighth-grader from Riviera Beach, Florida vividly illustrates a theme that Justin and I continually see when speaking with elementary and middle school students across the nation. When we ask students “How many of you know someone else’s password?” we invariably find that at least half of the hands go up. And then we discuss how friendships tend to be fickle when a child is growing up, and your “best friend” could become your “worst enemy” overnight – due to some small misunderstanding or random reason. And so we ask, “What do you think your ex-best friend is going to do with your password?” Silence usually comes over the room as the lesson seemingly sinks in. We have got to continue to let kids know that they must protect their passwords at all costs, and not think that they are immune to victimization. This will not only reduce their vulnerability to cyberbullying, but also to identity theft and a host of other forms of online harm.
Indictments were filed yesterday in the Megan Meier case. For those of you unfamiliar with the case, you can read the story here. In short, Megan Meier was the 13-year-old from Missouri who committed suicide after being cyberbullied on MySpace. To make matters worse, the offender was a fictitious 16-year-old boy who was created by the mother of one of Megan’s friends. Megan’s mother, Tina, has become an instant cyberbullying activist, appearing on many national news programs lobbying for cyberbullying legislation.
While I feel those responsible for Megan’s untimely death need to be punished, I’m not sure the current indictments are the best approach. Our reading of the indictment suggests that Lori Drew, the mother allegedly responsible for the harassment, is being charged with violating MySpace’s terms of service which prohibits “promoting conduct that was abusive, threatening, obscene, defamatory, or libelous.” So she is essentially being criminally charged (in federal court) for committing (and conspiring to commit) a civil crime (a “tortious” act).
This indictment really speaks to the problem facing cyberbullying advocates. The problem is that there are no good, clear laws that govern this behavior. If society feels as though those who cyberbully should be held criminally responsible, then legislators should get to work on creating the legislation. Because they have largely failed to do so, special prosecutors, and in this case federal prosecutors, are forced to shoe-horn cyberbullying cases into existing legislation. Many states have recently passed laws concerning cyberbullying – but they all simply direct school districts to deal with it. Instead of providing meaningful direction to educators, parents, and prosecutors, the laws merely require school districts to update their harassment policies to include electronic variants. But again, they stop short of giving specific directions.
I’m not advocating here that we should criminalize cyberbullying. The vast majority of cyberbullying cases can usually be most effectively dealt with informally by parents, with the help of others (educators, school counselors, maybe even local law enforcement). In the rare case that cyberbullying behaviors result in significant harm and/or death, however, well then those responsible need to be held accountable. The real question is whether the indictments filed yesterday will hold up. Any thoughts? How about from our two resident lawyers?
So…I’m sure by now you all have heard the news story and seen the attendant video of the cheerleader in Lakeland, Florida who was lured into a “friend’s” home and then severely beaten by that friend and other cheerleaders. All of this for basically talking smack over MySpace (cyberbullying?) about those friends. So what we have is a vivid depiction of six girls who carefully coordinated (with two male lookouts and everything) a vicious attack (to where she suffered a concussion and fell unconscious) on an unsuspecting girl at a home where no parents were around…and where she was detained with no freedom to leave…and where the violence was recorded for the purposes of uploading it to YouTube and MySpace…. Then she was taken in a car, dropped off at some random location, and threatened with more beatings if she went to the authorities.
Points to consider:
1. What is the deal with these girls being so horrifically violent? Is this not out of the ordinary, but seems so because the recording has so starkly shown us the hostility and aggression of which some girls are capable? Is it possible that girls are actually *just as prone to violence* as boys (not withstanding testosterone and so forth) but have been constrained by social acceptability…but perhaps those standards are eroding or fading or being diluted as the years go by?
2. Is our culture being desensitized to female violence? For example, you turn on The Real World on MTV and we are seeing more frequently verbal violence and even physical violence among girls.
3. Were the girls playing to the camera…performing, if you will? Were they, to some degree, looking for their 15 minutes of fame by recording themselves in this video?
4. What were the girls thinking, in terms of escaping identification, apprehension, and punishment, with the recording of the criminal assault?
5. Are the parents at fault?
6. Has anyone seen the MySpace postings, as I’d like to consider their contents?
7. Has anyone figured out how to download flash video, because I’d like to archive those videos linked from that site to show others?