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.
Lori Drew to be sentenced in Megan Meier cyberbullying case
We are all waiting with baited breath to learn of the sentencing decision to be handed down this week against Lori Drew. In part because of the incredible amount of controversy surrounding this case, I believe the sentence will be minor and not amount to more than a proverbial slap on the wrist. Already we have seen what some consider a misapplication of the law (prosecuting Ms. Drew under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act), and another questionable, emotion-laden decision by the courts in a uniquely complicated case has the potential to seriously and negatively affect how we use and benefit from the Internet.
The article provides a quote that represents and perpetuates one of the most misguided perspectives surrounding cyberbullying:
“If federal law recognises this new form of bullying, police and prosecutors will be better equipped and educated to deal with this problem. Prosecutors, more importantly, will then have the ability to punish this behaviour in court.”
While Justin has covered this in a recent post, I would encourage everyone in favor of this response strategy to methodically evaluate whether more law enforcement, more fines, and more imprisonment are going to a) deter a person’s decision to harass or mistreat another person *online* (not face-to-face) in the heat of the moment b) lead to a fundamental change in the way individuals treat each other in cyberspace (we have so many laws on the books that have done NOTHING to truly improve our bent towards wrongdoing) and c) contribute to a culture of respect, tolerance, empathy, and kindness across all interpersonal interactions. As a scholar of criminal justice and criminology, I can’t emphasize enough that regulation will NOT lead to these outcomes, and that it is naïve at best and ignorant at worst to believe that it will.
While the circumstances of Megan Meier’s death are horrific, the legacy stemming from her tragedy should not be the creation of unncessary and fruitless regulation buttressed by the threat of unnecessary and fruitless penalties. Rather, the legacy should be that of an eye-opener that revolutionizes and radically propels forward educational efforts to instruct, guide, and empower individuals (both youth and adults) to participate in online communications with wisdom, rationality, caution, and kindness.
Cyberbullying Legislation: Clarification of My Position and Invitation to Participate
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?
Public Radio Discussion on Proposed Cyberbullying Legislation
I was a guest on the New Hampshire Public Radio show “Word of Mouth” with Virginia Prescott this morning where I talked about the proposed Megan Meier Cyberbullying Prevention Act. You can listen to the brief interview here. They were gracious enough to send me some potential questions a couple of hours before the interview so I knew what to expect. Here is a short summary of my responses (even though some of these questions were not ultimately asked):
LORI DREW, THE ADULT DEFENDANT IN THIS CASE, WAS FOUND GUILTY OF VIOLATING MYSPACE’S TERMS-OF-SERVICE… AND ALSO THE “FEDERAL COMPUTER FRAUD AND ABUSE ACT” – ESSENTIALLY AN ANTI-HACKING LAW. SINCE THERE ARE NO FEDERAL LAWS AGAINST CYBERBULLYING, HOW DO STATES CURRENTLY APPROACH THE ISSUE?
Most states have simply directed school districts to deal with the problem. They have passed legislation recommending or requiring local school districts to update their harassment and bullying policies to include electronic variants. Unfortunately they have stopped short of providing concrete information regarding when and how schools can respond. For example, it’s pretty clear that students who use school owned equipment or technology (such as email addresses), or who are on campus when they cyberbully are subject to school discipline. But what about students who engage in cyberbullying using their own computers on their own time in their bedroom at home? Does the school have a responsibility or right to discipline the bully in this case? This is unclear, though there is some existing case law to suggest that if the cyberbullying results in a “substantial disruption” at school that it is then subject to school discipline. But what exactly is a substantial disruption? If you are cyberbullying me, Virginia, away from school but we are in the same class at school, clearly my ability to learn is being substantially disrupted. Nevertheless, I’m not sure this would meet the standard. These issues need to be clarified.
SINCE MANY OF THESE LAWS ARE LIMITED TO ONLINE HARASSMENT THAT TAKES PLACE ON SCHOOL GROUNDS, WHAT HAPPENS WHEN KIDS GO HOME AND USE THEIR LAPTOPS OR CELL PHONES?
That is one of the biggest problems. Most cyberbullying incidents are initiated or escalated away from school. Clearly parents have a major role to play in preventing and responding to these behaviors. Nevertheless, I still feel that schools can be involved as well—at least informally (though parent/principal conferences, education, etc). And in certain circumstances, like when the behaviors do result in a substantial disruption at school, more formal discipline may be allowed.
ARE THERE ANY STATES WHERE A SCHOOL DISTRICT CAN TAKE ACTION AGAINST AN ADULT?
I am not aware of any state where schools can take action against adults for cyberbullying. I assume you are referring to a situation where a parent would be somehow disciplined for the actions of their child—again, I am not aware of any such law. And I don’t know of any situation where a school could take action against an adult in a case like the Lori Drew cyberbullying incident.
GETTING BACK TO THE PIECE OF LEGISLATION THAT’S ON THE TABLE, CONGRESSWOMAN LINDA SANCHEZ HAS PROPOSED A BILL WOULD MAKE IT A FELONY TO “INTIMIDATE OR HARASS SOMEONE USING ELECTRONIC MEANS… AS PART OF A PATTERN OF REPEATED AND HOSTILE BEHAVIOR.” WHAT EXACTLY DOES THIS MEAN?
This is the big question—what exactly does that mean? One of the problems with the proposal is that it can be interpreted in many different ways by many different people. This is something we have been wrestling with for years: how to come up with a sufficient, concise, and clear definition of cyberbullying. Due to the nature of the behaviors, any comprehensive definition of cyberbullying risks being too broad. And lawyers and judges don’t like broad laws. In spirit, I like the proposed bill. I’m glad that there is a national discussion about cyberbullying. Unfortunately, I just don’t think it will hold up in court.
THIS BILL WAS ORIGINALLY INTRODUCED IN MAY 2008, BUT IT DIED IN COMMITTEE. NOW THE BILL HAS SEVENTEEN CO-SPONSORS. WHY DO YOU THINK MORE MEMBERS OF CONGRESS ARE SUPPORTING IT THIS TIME AROUND?
I think there have been several high profile cases of cyberbullying over the last year and more and more people are as a result beginning to recognize its harmful nature. Again, this is a good thing. Even if this proposal isn’t successful, I am glad to see that we are moving in the direction of identifying cyberbullying as something society would like to prevent and condemn.
ON HIS BLOG, UCLA PROFESSOR OF LAW EUGENE VOLOKH ARGUES THAT THIS BILL IS TOO BROAD TO BE CONSTITUTIONAL. HE SAYS IT COULD BE USED AGAINST ANYONE WHO SENDS ANGRY EMAILS TO A POLITICIAN OR STARTS A BLOG THAT REPEATEDLY CRITICIZES A COMPANY. COULD THIS BILL LIMIT FREE SPEECH?
That is the biggest concern. We always have to balance free speech with responsible speech. We also have to remember that while students at school don’t “leave their free speech rights at the school house gate,” the rules are different. Schools have a role to play in teaching students appropriate means of discourse and communication. They can limit speech that is threatening, offensive, or counter to their educational mission at school. And once again, if that speech occurs away from school but results in a substantial disruption at school, the school has the authority to respond.
CONGRESSWOMAN SANCHEZ DEFENDED HER BILL ON THE HUFFINGTON POST LAST WEEK. SHE WROTE, “WHEN SO-CALLED FREE SPEECH LEADS TO BULLIES HAVING FREE-REIGN TO THREATEN KIDS, IT’S TIME TO ACT.” JUSTIN, YOUR BLOG FOCUSES ON THE CAUSES AND CONSEQUENCES OF ONLINE HARASSMENT. DO YOU AGREE THAT IT’S TIME FOR ACTION?
Yes, I agree that it is time for action. I agree 100% with what congresswoman is saying, I’m just unsure that this particular bill will be the best means toward that end. I talk to victims of cyberbullying all of the time. I have spoken to Tina Meier, I know what cyberbullying has done to her life. We need to take action. In my view, however, most of the action needs to be at the local level—parents, schools, and other local community members need to get involved in preventing and responding to cyberbullying. Only in rare cases will cyberbullying rise to the level where criminal intervention is necessary. And in most cases there already exists sufficient laws to prosecute based on these circumstances (harassment or stalking laws, for example). I would hate to see a 15-year-old get sent to jail for 2 years for engaging in typical cyberbullying.
WHAT WOULD A GOOD PIECE CYBERBULLYING LEGISLATION LOOK LIKE, IN YOUR OPINION?
I good piece of legislation would clearly define cyberbullying in a way that is clear, concise, and comprehensive. Again, this is a big challenge, but this definition should be based on the growing body of evidence emerging from cyberbullying research. I would like the legislation to clearly spell out the circumstances under which schools can get involved in cyberbullying cases—especially when they occur away from school. Good legislation would require schools to educate students about the responsible use of technology—and provide funding for that purpose. Whose responsibility is it to teach kids to use computers and cell phones responsibly? Again, parents have a role, but often-times their kids know more about the technology than they do. Since schools are often providing access to computers and/or requiring students to utilize technology to complete school work, they have a responsibility as well to teach youth to use it responsibly.
BOTH CHILDREN AND ADULTS COULD BE PROSECUTED UNDER THIS BILL. IF IT DOES BECOME LAW, WOULD THE THREAT OF BEING SENT TO JAIL DETER KIDS FROM HARASSING EACH OTHER ONLINE?
It is unlikely that children (or adults for that matter) would be deterred from engaging in cyberbullying because of this law. In order to act as a deterrent, a punishment needs to be certain, swift, and sufficiently severe. While our criminal justice system has been very good at ratcheting up the severity of punishments, there is very little certainty or swiftness of punishment in our system. It is more likely that students will be deterred by the potential disapproval of parents or peers than any formal criminal justice sanction. As such, we need to create a culture where all forms of harassment are viewed by society as taboo.
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…
Age- and identity-misrepresentation on the Internet
The New York Times last week asked me my thoughts on the Megan Meier case and online misrepresentation, and I thought I’d expand on my perspective here. First off, we have to understand why this case drew so much attention. It was because we have a vulnerable and depressed young girl basically driven to suicide by the malicious actions of an adult and her accomplices. The plot was thickened by the fact that the adult was the young girl’s neighbor, and that the actions were carried out through interaction on the most popular online social networking site at the time. While other youth (sadly) have taken their life in part because of cyberbullying, this case inflames our emotions and sensitivities because of its nature, the relationship between the perpetrator and the victim, and because it is in-line with much of the sensationalism surrounding the dangers of youth Internet use.
When it comes to online misrepresentation, my thoughts differ from many others out there. I personally don’t think this case has chilling effects for the way individuals participate in Internet-based interactions (for example, by creating fake online identities). So many do it just for convenience and because they are not comfortable giving out their personal information because of spam or increasing their chance of victimization. This is just how it is, and I agree with that general motivation. Eventually we may see technology that allows for age- or identity-verification without the obvious negatives of providing that information, but some of the inherent benefits of Internet-based communication will then be diminished.
Finally, I should make clear that it is still quite easy to pose as a teenager or youth online. We have no fully useful age- or identity-verification systems in place, although entities in the corporate sector are furiously competing with each other to develop the best one and achieve widespread adoption. We are definitely not there yet. That said, social networking sites like Facebook and MySpace will deal with age- or identity-misrepresentation when it is brought to their attention, but traditionally very few would report it if they stumbled upon it. Accompanying the notoriety of this case, perhaps the grave consequences stemming from Lori Drew’s misrepresentation will lead many more Internet users to step up and inform the authorities.