Stop cyberbullying with education, not new law

Larry offers advice on how to recognize, prevent and stop cyberbullying and points out the problems of a proposed federal law

Larry Magid
Larry Magid is a technology journalist and an Internet safety advocate. He's been writing and speaking about Internet safety since he wrote Internet safety guide "Child Safety on the Information Highway" in 1994. He is co-director of ConnectSafely.org, founder of SafeKids.com and SafeTeens.com, and a board member of the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children. Larry's technology analysis and commentary can be heard on CBS News and CBS affiliates, and read on CBSNews.com. He also writes a personal-tech column for the San Jose Mercury News. You can e-mail Larry.
Larry Magid
5 min read

The first things you need to know about cyberbullying are that it's not an epidemic and it's not killing our children. Yes, it's probably one of the more widespread youth risks on the Internet and yes there are some well publicized cases of cyberbullying victims who have committed suicide, but let's look at this in context.

Bullying has always been a problem among adolescents and, sadly, so has suicide. In the few known cases of suicide after cyberbullying, there are other contributing factors. That's not to diminish the tragedy or suggest that the cyberbullying didn't play a role but--as with all online youth risk, we need to look at what else was going on in the child's life. Even when a suicide or other tragic event doesn't occur, cyberbullying is often accompanied by a pattern of offline bullying and sometimes there are other issues including long-term depression, problems at home, and self-esteem issues. And the most famous case of "cyberbullying"--the tragic suicide of 13-year-old Megan Meier--was far from typical. Cyberbullying is almost always peer to peer, but this was a case of an adult (the mom of one of Megan's peers) being accused of seeking revenge on a child who had allegedly bullied her own child.

And, as per "epidemic," it depends on how you define cyberbullying.

The most commonly recognized definition of bullying includes repeated, unwanted aggressive behavior over a period of time with an imbalance of power between the bully and the victim. In theory, that also covers cyberbullying, but some have taken a broader approach to cyberbullying to also include single or occasional episodes of a person insulting another person online. Indeed, because of the possibility of it being forwarded, a single episode of online harassment can have long-term consequences. "'Power' and 'repetition' may be manifested a bit differently online than in traditional bullying, Susan Limber, professor of psychology at Clemson University, said in an interview that appeared in a publication of the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Safe and Drug-Free Schools. She added, "a student willing to abuse technology can easily wield great power over his or her target just by having the ability to reach a large audience, and often by hiding his or her identity."

Manifestations of cyberbullying include name calling, sending embarrassing pictures, sharing personal information or secrets without permission, and spreading rumors. It can also include trickery, exclusion, and impersonation.

Fuzzy numbers
Partly because there is no single accepted definition of cyberbullying, the extent of the problem is all over the map. I've seen some reports claim that up to 80 percent of online youth have experienced cyberbullying, while two national studies have put the percentage closer to one-third. A UCLA study conducted in 2008 found that 41 percent of teens surveyed reported between one and three online bullying incidents over the course of a year.

A recent study by Cox Communications came up with lower numbers, finding that approximately 19 percent of teens say they've been cyberbullied online or via text message and 10 percent say they've cyberbullied someone else.

One thing we know about cyberbullying is that it's often associated with real-world bullying. The UCLA study found that 85 percent of those bullied online were also bullied at school.

Signs of cyberbullying
It's not always obvious if a child is a victim of cyberbullying, but some possible signs include: suddenly being reluctant to go online or use a cell phone; avoiding a discussion about what they're doing online; depression, mood swings, change in eating habits; and aloofness or a general disinterest in school and activities. A child closing the browser or turning off the cell phone when a parent walks in the room can be a sign of cyberbullying, though it can also be a sign of other issues including an inappropriate relationship or just insistence on privacy.

Preventing and stopping cyberbullying
After struggling with a school-wide bullying problem, Aaron Hansen, principal of White Pine Middle School in Ely, Nev., told Fox News that he asked the kids to fill out a survey indicating when the bullying took place and who the bullies were. He then invited the alleged offenders into his office to tell them "your peers feel that like you're not very nice to people at times and they feel like sometimes you're a bully." Based on working with those kids and working with their needs--including problems at home--the school was able to reduce the problem.

Not every situation will resolve itself quite so easily, but identifying the reasons kids are acting as bullies can go a long way toward preventing it as can educational programs that stress ethics and cyber citizenship ("netiquette"). It also helps kids to know what to do if they are victims of bullying. At ConnectSafely.org (a site I help operate) we came up with a number of tips including: don't respond, don't retaliate; talk to a trusted adult; and save the evidence. We also advise young people to be civil toward others and not to be bullies themselves. Finally, "be a friend, not a bystander." Don't forward mean messages and let bullies know that their actions are not cool.

If your child is a victim of cyberbullying, don't start by taking away his or her Internet privileges. That's one reason kids often don't talk about Net-related problems with parents. Instead, try to get your child to calmly explain what has happened. If possible, talk with the parents of the other kids involved and, if necessary, involve school authorities. If the impact of the bullying spills over to school (as it usually does), the school has a right to intervene.

Be careful what we legislate
There are lots of state laws that focus on cyberbullying, some requiring schools to provide educational resources. While I'm all for education, I think we need to be careful about any legislation that outlaws cyberbullying. U.S. Rep. Linda Sanchez (D-Calif.) has proposed H.R. 1966, well meaning legislation that could imprison for up to two years, "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." On the surface, it seems fine but as UCLA law professor Eugene Volokh has pointed out, it could also be used to punish political and other forms of speech. "I try to coerce a politician into voting a particular way, by repeatedly blogging (using a hostile tone)," he writes, "I am transmitting in interstate commerce a communication with the intent to coerce using electronic means (a blog) "to support severe, repeated, and hostile behavior." Professor Volokh said that if the law is passed, he expects it to be "struck down as facially overbroad."

This post originally appeared on SafeKids.com