Cox Communications and the NCMEC recently held a Teen Summit in Washington, and we are pleased to see that the research they conducted revealed the same findings as our own work, as it relates to the use of various technologies by adolescents, experiences with cyberbullying, and the misuse of personal pictures or content. Furthermore, one of the major take-home messages from the Summit was that parents and guardians must exercise due diligence in protecting their children and teenagers. We also underscore the importance of cultivating an open line of communication with your youth, and have created a Cyberbullying Scripts resource that you can download. This document demonstrates how easy it is to broach the subject matter, and provides you with examples and questions to guide you. Definitely let us know what has worked and what has not worked in talking to your kids about cyberbullying and responsible online social networking. It is important for us to identify best practices and then share them with parents, educators, and other professionals who regularly wrestle with this issue.
I wanted to take a moment to clarify my position on the recent discussion regarding the need for a federal cyberbullying law. I think my perspective has been misinterpreted in the media and by many who see me as opposed to any cyberbullying legislation. I am not opposed to cyberbullying legislation. I am simply concerned about the current language of the “Megan Meier Cyberbullying Prevention Act.” First, it is never good practice to create policy based on isolated incidents. While I certainly can sympathize with Tina Meier and her family, I don’t think her daughter’s tragic example should be used as a framework for determining law. Any law should be informed by research and therefore seek to prevent and provide guidance for responding to those behaviors which are most likely to result in substantial harm to victims.
As many have pointed out, much of the language in the current proposal is ambiguous and as a result the bill could be misapplied. I am worried that if the bill fails or is once again allowed to expire before formal consideration, that it sends the message that cyberbullying isn’t a serious problem. Similarly, if the bill passes and then is subsequently overturned by the courts, it sends the same message. So it is not “a law” that concerns me as much as the current proposal.
Some have suggested that a federal law would deter people from engaging in cyberbullying. It is unlikely that any law would act as a deterrent—especially for adolescents. Volumes of research find little support for the deterrence doctrine as applied in contemporary criminal justice policy. In order to deter, a punishment has to be certain, swift, and sufficiently severe. While we are good in the United States at ratcheting up the severity of punishments, we fail to ensure certainty and celerity of punishment. And many would argue that those are the most important components.
If not a deterrent, then what is the purpose of an anti-cyberbullying law? The purpose, in my view, should be to bring awareness to the problem and to empower local officials to take the necessary steps to respond. The vast majority of adolescent cyberbullying incidents can and should be dealt with informally by parents with the help and support of educators, other community leaders, and local law enforcement. Any cyberbullying incident that occurs, regardless of location, that results in a substantial disruption of the learning environment at school, or that makes it difficult for a student to effectively learn, should be subject to reasonable school sanction (and of course parental punishment). Criminal prosecution should be reserved for the most serious forms of cyberbullying that result in significant harm to the target. The reality is that we already have several laws that can be applied in these circumstances (criminal harassment, felonious assault, stalking, etc.). In addition, victims of cyberbullying are always allowed to pursue civil litigation against a bully (civil harassment, defamation of character, libel, etc.).
Many people over the last couple of weeks have asked me what a good cyberbullying law might look like. Though I am not a legislator (or lawyer), I have thought a bit about this. In my view, a comprehensive anti-cyberbullying law would be clear, inclusive, and have the support of schools, law enforcement, and parents. Specifically, a proposal would include the following elements:
- Clear and specific definition of cyberbullying that would hold up to legal scrutiny.
- Different consequences for juveniles and adults—I am hesitant to criminalize the relatively age-appropriate deviant behaviors of adolescents. Kids make mistakes and experiment with a variety of destructive and hurtful behaviors. While they need to be punished, we shouldn’t make adolescents felons for their indiscretions.
- Clear directives to local school districts about when and how they can respond to cyberbullying—especially those incidents that are initiated away from the school.
- Appropriately-funded mandates or incentives for Internet safety and responsibility education in schools and communities.
I applaud Congresswoman Sanchez for bringing much-needed dialogue to this important issue. It is clear that she fully understands the harmful nature of cyberbullying and I certainly appreciate her resolve and persistence in attempting to move toward stopping this pernicious form of interpersonal harm. While her proposal represents a step in the right direction, it clearly has some significant problems. I am posting my thoughts here so that we can continue this discussion. Let’s help Congress and state legislatures better understand this issue by cooperatively developing a more appropriate proposal. What are your thoughts? What elements are missing from my proposal? What are the key issues here? What would a good cyberbullying law look like to you?
There has been a lot of discussion lately concerning proposed or recently passed state and federal legislation designed to address cyberbullying. One particular bill, proposed by California Congresswoman Linda T. Sanchez and called the “Megan Meier Cyberbullying Prevention Act,” was re-introduced in the House of Representatives last month (the proposal was initially introduced in May of 2008). The Act amends Chapter 41 of title 18 of the U.S. Code to include the following: “Whoever transmits in interstate or foreign commerce any communication, with the intent to coerce, intimidate, harass, or cause substantial emotional distress to a person, using electronic means to support severe, repeated, and hostile behavior, shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than two years, or both.”
While on paper this may sound good, we have some concerns about it. Clearly we feel it is important for legislators to recognize the seriousness of cyberbullying and to do their part to help provide guidance and direction to local and state authorities confronted with cyberbullying. As I have stated before, I am not convinced that a state or federal law which criminalizes cyberbullying is necessarily the best approach. The vast majority of all cyberbullying can be effectively handled informally—by parents, educators, and other community members. In the rare event that a cyberbullying incident rises to a level warranting criminal intervention, we already have existing laws which can be utilized (stalking, criminal harassment, felonious assault, etc.).
Many have commented on the potential for misinterpretation and misapplication with this law, and most lawyers we have spoken to (even those with expertise in this area) have reservations about this particular legislation. Instead of trying to push something through (that already failed to gain momentum a year earlier), legislators should stop and work to develop a law that is reasonable, practical, constitutional, and informed by research. Perhaps they could start by convening a group of experts (which should include educators, parents, and youth themselves), so that they can identify the real issues going on here. The question really is: what kind of behaviors are we specifically trying to prevent? And what kind of law is necessary to accomplish this? As always, we look forward to your thoughts…
Here’s a recent query I received from an educator who I have worked with in the past. I thought her question and my response would be of interest to others so I am posting both here. Does your school district have a policy regarding cyberbullying or Facebook? How about cyberbullying on Facebook?
Question: “The reason for my email is that we have recently had issues with Facebook brought to our attention by parents. Cyberbullying is taking place among our 8th graders and it seems to be affecting the classroom environment. The principal and I are wondering if you have any sample policies that might help us as we are looking to establish some type of policy quickly to address this problem.”
Response: I am sorry to hear that you are facing problems with Facebook. We don’t have a sample policy per se, but we suggest elements that you might want to include in your policy. The problem really isn’t isolated to Facebook. That is, you don’t need a “Facebook Policy.” If you tried to be that specific, you would have to update your policy every 6 months or so as different Web sites come in and out of popularity. You just need a general policy that will cover the kinds of behaviors that are detrimental to your school environment. You have our book, and you should definitely revisit chapter 5 – especially pages 118-126 to see how your existing policy could be improved based on these suggestion. Essentially, your policy needs to state that any behavior that disrupts the school environment is subject to discipline.
As I mentioned in my presentation to your folks, you might want to see if you can convene a group of staff, parents, and even students to review your existing policy and to make recommendations for updating it based on these new behaviors that are emerging. This shouldn’t be a very large group – perhaps 2 or 3 members from each of the above groups – otherwise it may be difficult to get everyone to agree. This group can then inform your school’s overall approach. They can make recommendations additions to the policy and for appropriate disciplinary sanctions based on violations of the policy. I know you are looking for a quick fix (aren’t we all!), but taking the time to develop comprehensive policy, and involving parents and students, will yield dividends in the long run. It will be easier to sell the policy to parents if key parents are involved in the process. And the students can help to make sure the policy is comprehensive and realistic.
By the way, in general, if you can demonstrate that the behaviors are substantially disrupting your school environment, even though those behaviors are occurring away from school, the courts have upheld disciplinary sanctions. And that legal perspective is essentially directed at public schools. Since you are a private school, you have much more latitude in basically doing what you think is appropriate. That said, it is still important to have a good policy that parents and even students can get behind.
I’m going to be in Washington, DC on Wednesday, December 10th and Thursday, December 11th for the Family Online Safety Institute’s annual conference, where I’ll be participating in a formal roundtable to discuss cyberbullying prevention and response and Internet safety issues. I am really looking forward to this, as many top practitioners and authors in this field will be there. It will be excellent to see and catch up with Anne Collier, Larry Magid, Nancy Willard, Michelle Ybarra, Sonia Livingstone, Janis Wolak, and Sam McQuade, and to talk technological strategies and solutions with some of the heavy-hitting corporations in the communications and social media stratosphere. Look me up or set something up with me – I’ll be at the conference hotel in the early evening on the 10th for a reception dinner, and then milling about attending presentations and networking throughout the day before my 4:30pm roundtable on Thursday.