Bullying Pt. 2: Digital Damage

Published on The Daily Femme – Thursday, July 8, 2010

Last week, as I was working on my piece on Bullying in Schools, I was sent a link to a New York Times article on how schools should handle cyberbullying that prompted me to address this other facet of the issue.

According to Stopcyberbullying.org, cyberbullying occurs “when a child, preteen or teen is tormented, threatened, harassed, humiliated, embarrassed or otherwise targeted by another child, preteen or teen using the Internet, interactive and digital technologies or mobile phones.” Though this definition seems specific enough, the term is complicated and ever-evolving, continuously blurring the line between bullying and fighting, between cruel and mean, between social development and unusual behavior. As the NYT article points out, teens “often miss cues about tone of voice,” so a “crass joke” becomes a “withering attack” when communicated digitally, and, as an eight-grade girl interviewed for the article says, “it’s easier to fight online, because you feel more brave and in control…on Facebook, you can be as mean as you want.”

This difficulty to accurately identify cyberbullying makes it hard for schools to know when and how to intervene. While some schools get elbows-deep in incidents of cyberbullying, others poke at them with a stick, nervous about the legal implications of involvement. And, unfortunately, such nervousness is not unwarranted – according to the NYT piece, while “a few families have successfully sued schools for failing to protect their children from bullies,”  schools who did intervene against bullies were also sued as in the case of music industry lawyer Evan S. Cohen’s eight-grade daughter.  When Cohen’s daughter posted a video on YouTube that showed her and her friends laughing, making “mean-spirited, sexual comments” about another eight-grade girl, the school suspended her for two days and Cohen sued the school for intervening. The courts overturned the suspension, claiming that while the school had good intentions, “it cannot discipline a student for speech, ‘simply because young persons are unpredictable or immature, or because, in general, teenagers are emotionally fragile and may often fight over hurtful comments.’”

I personally do not think that anyone one under the age of 16 should have a social networking profile or a cell phone, but if they do, parents should heavily monitor them using available watch-dog monitoring programs and teach their children digital responsibility. I also think that parents should be at the helm of resolving cyberbullying when it occurs outside of school. That is not to say that schools have no role to play, they do but so do parents.

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