White House Bullying Conference
On Thursday March 10, 2011, the White House convened a conference to address the issue of bullying. First Lady Michelle and President Obama welcomed parents, students, researchers, industry leaders and others to discuss the negative effects of bullying and highlight some of the best-practices and promising approaches in prevention and response. I was honored to be invited to be a part of an expert panel to share with attendees what we have learned through our efforts at the Cyberbullying Research Center. You can see video of the proceedings and my contributions here.
Other researchers on the panel were Sue Swearer (University of Nebraska at Lincoln), Catherine Bradshaw (Johns Hopkins), and George Sugai (University of Connecticut). We spoke about noteworthy efforts to address bullying in general, and I focused on the unique characteristics and strategies associated with cyberbullying. Additionally, Sameer and I – along with these and other researchers – wrote topic-specific white papers for the conference. All of these documents can be found here.
Overall, it was a great experience. I enjoyed being at the White House and seeing many friends and colleagues from around the country who are as passionate as I am about addressing the problem of bullying and peer harassment. A lot of great ideas were shared, and I am hopeful that attendees will continue to work together to develop and implement comprehensive anti-bullying initiatives.
I was also reassured by the number of laypersons in attendance who identified needing additional research as essential. Especially needed are more systematic evaluations of bullying policies, programs, and curricula. If nothing else, I am hopeful that this event raised national and even international awareness about a problem that some still dismiss as lacking import. Try telling that to Tina Meier, Sirdeaner Walker, Kevin Epling, or Kirk and Laura Smalley, all of whom were at the White House because they had lost a child to suicide linked to bullying. We continue to have so much work to do, but I remain encouraged and undaunted.
Faces Behind the Statistics
I was fortunate to be given the opportunity to present alongside Tina Meier last week at a cyberbullying event in Detroit sponsored by the Anti-Defamation League. I have spoken to Tina on the phone several times in the past, but this was the first time that I was able to meet her in person. By now just about everyone is familiar with the nightmare that Tina has been forced to live with over the past few years after the untimely death of her teenaged daughter Megan. It is a tragic story no matter how you read it.
I am happy to see Tina taking this horrible situation and turning it into a movement to educate others about the harmful effects of online aggression left unchecked. At the event I expected Tina to simply recount her story, but she in fact went way beyond that. In the relatively short time since being thrust into this area, she has come to understand quite a bit about the online activities of adolescents and did a commendable job moving beyond her unique story to educate the audience about the varied issues involved. Her presentation was a very good compliment to mine and I was encouraged to see that we were on the same page regarding a variety of issues.
Sometimes as researchers I think there is a risk that we can become too detached from that which we are studying. A lot of times we are simply working with numbers—nameless, faceless statistics. We need to be constantly reminded that behind every cyberbullying victim or offender or parent or teacher there is a story that needs to be told. Thankfully, Sameer and I speak to teens, parents, educators, and others involved in dealing with cyberbullying on a regular basis so it is difficult to become callous to the issues. Talking with Tina last week reaffirmed my commitment to continuing to work toward better understanding the causes and consequences of cyberbullying so that efforts can be undertaken to prevent these negative behaviors from taking a toll on our youth.
Felony harassment charges stemming from Craiglist posting
Recently, a case came up before the Missouri court involving a 40-year-old woman and a 17-year-old girl, with the former having been charged with felony harassment as she posted the girl’s personal contact information and photo on Craigslist in their subsection for individuals seeking “Casual Encounters” (you can imagine what that means). To note, this is the first application of Missouri’s new cyberharassment and cyberbullying law, which went into effect in June of 2008 following the media coverage of Megan Meier’s suicide.
The defendant and her attorney claim this was simply a practical joke. Her attorney also claims that had this same information been written on a bathroom wall, she would not have been charged.
I disagree with both of these assertions. First, there must be a line drawn as to what constitutes a practical joke, and that boundary was crossed when the defendant put the plaintiff at risk for actual, tangible harm. Secondly, to compare the writing on a bathroom wall to posting on the Internet is preposterous when considering the differential size of populations that would view each. Third, I believe it is completely appropriate for a judge and jury to consider the reality of recent Craiglist-related victimizations when interpreting the content and context of this case. Much like we don’t shrug off facetious statements about bombs in airports, we can’t shrug off the reality that the disclosure of personal information online can lead to serious harm offline. Finally, minors are (and should be) afforded even greater protection from these types of actions.
Lori Drew Officially Acquitted
Well, it’s official. On Sunday, U.S. District Judge George Wu acquitted Lori Drew of all federal criminal charges for her involvement in the suicide of 13-year-old Megan Meier. As you may recall, back in November a jury initially found Drew guilty of three misdemeanor charges of illegally accessing a protected computer (in essence, she was found guilty of violating MySpace.com’s Terms of Service). About two months ago, Judge Wu alluded to the fact that the case would be dismissed. Now it is official.
We have discussed this issue at length on this blog, acknowledging the various issues at play. Without question, what Lori Drew did was wrong. The question always has been, though, were those behaviors criminal? At the time, there really wasn’t any clear criminal statute that Drew had violated (that has since changed with several states and cities recently passing “cyberbullying laws”). The local prosecutor refused to pursue the case but a federal prosecutor in Los Angeles ultimately filed charges in federal court. It was those charges that have now been thrown out.
So what can we learn from this experience? First, it is important for federal, state, and local officials to clearly articulate legislation that unambiguously addresses the undesirable behaviors. This can be tricky given the constantly-changing nature of technology deviance. That said, any legislation should be grounded in what we know about youth and interpersonal aggression. Second, it is essential that parents, educators, and teens themselves work to prevent cyberbullying from occurring in the first place so that tragic incidents like this do not repeat themselves. Teens need to be empowered to shrug off minor forms of cyberbullying and to consult with an adult when the behaviors become too much to handle. Witnesses need to stand up for targets of cyberbullying by reporting what they see to teachers or parents so that the behaviors do not escalate. Everyone needs to recognize their role in cyberbullying prevention and response. If you don’t know what your role is, find out. You have a responsibility to take action. More on this in future postings…
Convictions against Lori Drew overturned today; case dismissed
The case against Lori Drew has been dismissed in federal court today, as the judge seemingly thought it would be wrong to criminalize certain Terms of Service violations of MySpace and other social networking web sites since users often misrepresent themselves online. (Bottom line when it comes to this ruling is that the law used to prosecute Drew was misapplied (and, frankly, not written very well). I am pleased about this decision due to its implications, and hope that those who make law and adjudicate cases related to online communications continue to carefully evaluate the long-term usefulness of regulation. I hope that Megan’s family can somehow obtain closure; Tina Meier continues to work tirelessly to bring attention to cyberbullying through her experience, and we are in her corner.