This October marked the sixth annual National Bullying Prevention month. Facebook, CNN, Yahoo! Kids and hundreds of schools and organizations joined forces to raise awareness and inspire new bullying prevention measures. Ten years ago, a bullying prevention campaign would have focused almost exclusively on teasing, physical abuse and social isolation inside the classroom. But now, no such campaign would be complete without discussing an increasingly widespread from of harassment – cyberbullying.
The Cyberbullying Research Center defines cyberbullying as, “willful and repeated harm inflicted through the use of computers, cell phones and other electronic devices.” Although the term is often used interchangeably with cyberstalking and cyberharassment, cyberbullying typically refers to digital harassment and bullying among minors within a school context. Among other things, this includes sending out threatening emails and instant messages, forwarding inappropriate photos and tricking students into revealing personal information to humiliate them on social media websites.
Legislators have taken some steps to protect victims of cyberbullying, but existing laws are neither standardized nor clear enough to curb cyberbullying nationwide. State digital harassment and stalking laws have been successfully used to punish offenders in numerous cases of cyberbullying, but they are only part of the solution. Cyberbullying is not a one-size-fits-all behavior, and overt threats associated with online harassment are sometimes, but not always, applicable to cyberbullying. Cyberbullies do not need to threaten students to damage their relationships with classmates and make their lives miserable in and outside of the classroom.
Because parents and teachers are often unaware of their role in preventing cyberbullying, they may miss the chance to stop it before it gets out of hand. If a teacher sees a student teasing a classmate in the hallways, she can send him or her to detention. If the incident includes physical violence or threats, the student may be suspended, expelled or reported to the authorities. But if the teacher finds out that a student is bullied on Facebook, can she still intervene? Unfortunately, the answer is an unclear “it depends.”
Currently, there is no national law that regulates cyberbullying or provides a uniform definition and protocol for schools to follow. A federal proposal created to protect victims of cyberbullying was submitted to Congress in 2008, but it raised concern over its potential interference with the First Amendment. Known as the Megan Meier Cyberbullying Prevention Act, the document called for a fine or imprisonment term of up to two years for individuals who used electronic means to initiate severe and repeated electronic communication that was, “intended to coerce, intimidate, harass or cause substantial emotional distress.”
The Megan Meier Cyberbullying Prevention Act was written in the aftermath of the highly publicized cyberbullying case of Megan Meier, a teenage girl who committed suicide after being cyberbullied by her friend’s 49-year-old mother. After Megan and her friend had a falling out, the girl’s mother created a fake MySpace profile, and posed as a flirtatious young boy to gain Megan’s trust. Once Megan bonded with the boy, she began receiving hostile instant messages from him. At one point, the boy even told her that the world would be a better place without her. Shortly thereafter, 13-year-old Megan took her life.
Although the story tugged at the nation’s heartstrings and resulted in an outpour of public support for the family, the accompanying act was criticized for its vagueness. Without a clear definition of cyberbullying, some legislators feared that it could be used to silence Internet users who did not have a good understanding of their First Amendment rights.
Due to federal discord over cyberbullying legislation, it is currently up to states to create laws that are standardized, clear and not in conflict with the freedom of speech. Across the nation, states are experiencing difficulties as they take on this complicated task, but progress is being made.
As of July 2012, 49 states have anti-bullying laws (Montana being the exception), and 47 of them address electronic harassment. All of these states also call for schools to create policies that deal with student bullying and digital harassment. The extent to which the laws also address off-campus and non-physical cyberbullying varies from state to state.
The Alabama Student Harassment Prevention Act, for example, requires public schools to create policies that protect students from electronic and non-electronic harassment, violence and threats. These policies are directed at behaviors that occur on school property, buses or at school-sponsored functions. Because such policies focus on threatening school behaviors, they may leave educators wondering how they can intervene in cases of offsite cyberbullying. Furthermore, it is unclear whether emotionally threatening behaviors such as repeated attempts to embarrass or damage a student’s reputation online fall under the state’s definition of bullying.
The Illinois bullying law is more direct, but still fails to clarify unacceptable behaviors. State legislation prohibits cyberbullying in emails, text messages or social media websites, and it requires both public and private schools to present information about Internet safety at least once per year in grades 3 through 12. It also gives school administrators the right to suspend or expel students who use the Internet to explicitly threaten other students or school employees on websites that are accessible within the school or to third parties who work or study at the school.
The Chicago Board of Education (CBE) clarifies most of the issues not covered in the Illinois state bullying law. According to the CBE student code of conduct, schools must inform the police when a Chicago public school student uses a computer or cell phone to, “stalk, harass, bully or otherwise intimidate” a student on or off campus. The CBE further defines bullying by listing behaviors that include, but are not limited to, “harassment, threats, intimidation, stalking, physical violence, sexual harassment, sexual violence, theft, public humiliation, destruction of property or retaliation for asserting or alleging an act of bullying.”
Due to variations in state laws, anti-bullying programs play a central role in educating students, teachers and parents about digital harassment. Oftentimes, schools partner with outside organizations to create clear policies and explain how cyberbullying cases should be handled.
The Anti-Defamation League (ADL), a civil rights and human relations agency that serves as a resource for the government, media, law enforcement and educators, is one of many organizations that helps schools recognize and respond to digital harassment. The League instructs teachers by hosting interactive cyberbullying workshops to explain how they can protect their students.
I contacted Jennifer Nielson, Associate Director of the ADL, to find out what top-down measures should be taken to end cyberbullying. According to Ms. Nielson, combining prevention policies and prevention education efforts is the best way to curb the problem. Based on the ADL model Cyberbullying Prevention Law, an effective state policy meets the following criteria:
• It contains a strong definition of bullying (including cyberbullying).
• It addresses bullying motivated by race, religion, ethnicity, sexual orientation and other personal characteristics.
• It includes notice requirements for students and parents.
• It sets out clear reporting procedures.
• It requires regular cyberbullying recognition and response training for teachers and students.
These and other components have already been incorporated into many state anti-bullying laws, but not all of them are equally comprehensive. As states continue to create and amend their legislation, politicians should keep in mind the importance of creating clear and standardized laws to give students, parents, and educators across the nation a wealth of applicable resources.
For the 25 percent of students who admit to being bullied repeatedly through text messages or the Internet, cyberbullying is not just another news story. Electronic bullying can spin out of control within minutes, but it can leave behind years of psychological damage. Digital technology has given cyberbullies the power to harass students on various platforms, but inch by inch, legislators are working to reclaim that power.