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Cyberbullying is a new fact of life

Connecticut schools are taking notice of the consequences that continue to develop from the January 14, 2010, suicide of 15-year-old Phoebe Prince in South Hadley, Massachusetts.  Phoebe's suicide was a direct result of the stress from heinous actions perpetrated by a group of her classmates. Last Monday, nine students who had gone to school with Phoebe were charged with criminal harassment, stalking, civil-rights violations, and statutory rape. Six of the teens are charged as adults and are facing felony criminal charges, while three others were charged as juveniles.

Following this action by Massachusetts Northwestern District Attorney Elizabeth Scheibel, schools nationwide--from the western Massachusetts town's schools, to schools here in Connecticut, to those across the country--are taking the opportunity to try to impress upon their students the sheer gravity of the events that occurred.

Here in Connecticut, school administrators are trying to distill some good from this tragic event in our neighboring state. For example, this past Tuesday, Portland, Connecticut, middle school students’ classes were briefly interrupted so that they could be shown a short video of news clips. The young people were then reminded of an on-going effort in Portland schools to remedy the sort of behavior which seems to be turning into an epidemic: cyberbullying.

South Hadley high school Principal Daniel Smith described his take on modern-day bullying in an interview with Slate magazine. Though bullying was on administrators’ radar screens there, "we'd been looking at bullying, and we were missing types of aggressions, relationship aggression, which we know happens. It can be nasty."

Then there is a further complication: the internet provides a whole new venue for harassment. The National Crime Prevention Council's definition of cyberbullying is "when the Internet, cell phones or other devices are used to send or post text or images intended to hurt or embarrass another person."

Accusations are lobbed at social networking sites such as MySpace and Facebook for facilitating bullying.

However, a study published in Pediatrics in January of 2008 showed that, Of the 1,588 children aged ten to fifteen years surveyed, 33% “reported an online harassment in the last year; 9% reported an incident on a social networking site specifically. Among targeted youth, solicitations were more commonly reported via instant messaging (43%) and in chat rooms (32%), and harassment was more commonly reported in instant messaging (55%) than through social networking sites (27% and 28%, respectively).”

“Prevention efforts may have a greater impact if they focus on the psychosocial problems of youth instead of a specific Internet application, including funding for online youth outreach programs, school antibullying programs, and online mental health services.”

The stakes continue to be raised for cyberbullies. All fifty states have some version of a law to deal with harassment. While these laws vary, efforts to federalize the consequences of cyberbullying with a new statute have thus far failed. For example, on May 22, 2009, legislation was proposed in the U.S. House of Representatives that would designate punishments of a monetary fine and up to two years in prison.

This bill is numbered H.R. 6123; it was introduced by California Representative Linda Sanchez. It  has drawn significant amounts of criticism, illustrating the challenging nature of this issue.

Following this bill's introduction, “many free speech advocates say its language is too broad and that it would act as judge and jury to determine whether there is significant evidence to prove that one person "cyberbullied" another. ‘We have existing harassment statutes in all 50 states that already cover this problem,’ says Parry Aftab, a lawyer and Internet security expert who's at the forefront of the anti-cyberbullying movement.

Even Sanchez's attempt to define the term "cyberbullying" poses problems, said UCLA law professor Eugene Volokh. "‘The bill defines it as 'using electronic means to support severe, repeated and hostile behavior,' but what does 'severe, hostile and repeated behavior' mean?’ he asked.”

"Even if you wanted to, you can't legislate against meanness," said Larry Magid, co-director of "It's contextual. If I call you fat, maybe I was bullying, or maybe I was concerned about your health, or maybe it was a relatively innocuous slight."

So the challenges related to tragic circumstances such as the bullying and suicide of teenagers like Phoebe Prince remain in force. Questions abound: how do we get our young people to take ownership of their actions? What responsibility do social networking sites bear? How can schools and parents coordinate to present a united front in the effort to stop cyberbullying?

For more information, sites such as can serve as a resource.


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