1) State laws and school policies have not kept pace with technology.
2) The early teen years are among the most horribly painful in a person’s life.
3) This would be a wonderful opportunity to humiliate myself.
The first two thoughts deserve discussion, but the best place for that is probably on the link to the NY Times story itself. The article depicts the frustrating intersection of technology, teenage behavior, and the law. Here we have thirteen year olds proficient in the texting, Facebook, and Formspring, posting on cyberspace that which in another era would be scrubbed off a stall in a public bathroom. Gossip. Lies. Humiliating polls. Threats. Profanity. Explicit sexual content.
It’s the same social jockeying that we lived through, but far worse. These humiliations are written in the indelible, viral ink of cyberspace.
The problem, at least for public schools, is that the texts and posts are often created outside of school, but the embarrassment, mocking, and occasional fist-fights that stem from them occur on campus. What are school administrators supposed to do? What can they do—legally-- to protect the victims but not provoke a lawsuit?
It’s the family of an accused “bully” who sued a school district and won in a case in California. The Times piece interviews the father of this eighth grader who was suspended for two days from school after creating and posting a YouTube video showing other classmates making, “mean spirited, sexual comments” about another student. In its attempt to protect the subject of the embarrassing video, a Federal District Judge ruled that the school had crossed the line, and the district would have to cough up $107, 150.80 to make up for it.
That incident reminds me of another case in which the person creating online or electronic content is protected by the law more than the subject of the mockery. Do you remember Meghan Meier, the teen in Missouri, who was targeted on her MySpace page by two neighborhood girls and a mom? The mother invented a fictional boy, who flirted with and then rejected Megan on her MySpace page, provoking her, her parents say, to hang herself in her bedroom closet.
The adult in this situation was fifty year old Lori Drew, indicted in 2008, when, “federal prosecutors pursued felony anti-hacking charges in Los Angeles, where MySpace has servers,” according to the New York Daily News.
But, follow that story to 2009 and you see the outcome. Drew was found guilty of only three misdemeanors, and the judge eventually acquitted her because he would otherwise, “convert a multitude of otherwise innocent internet users (who violate Terms of Service) into misdemeanant criminals.”
The state of Missouri, however, later extended its harassment laws to include cyberbullying and other messages sent by electronic devices. And, the Megan Meier Cyberbullying Prevention Act was introduced to Congress in April 2009, but has stalled because it is considered by some to be too broad.
I understand that when it comes to the law, nothing is as simple as it seems. But, it would be nice if victims of cyberbullying could catch a break without violating the rights of the ones who have driven them to states of humiliation or, in extreme circumstances, suicide.
But, the law cannot be burdened by the ancillary characteristics of adolescence. According to the Times, the judge in the case involving the video on YouTube said that although the school district acted with good intentions, it does not have the authority to 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.”
But saying that while still allowing the relatively unfettered use by teens of cell phones, Facebook, YouTube and things that I don’t know about because I’m over the proverbial hill—is like giving a glass of purple grape juice and a Sharpie to my two year old, setting her down in the Oval Office, and hoping she doesn’t destroy federal property.
The Times piece quotes the Anti Defamation league which says that 44 states have anti-bullying statutes, but fewer than half have articulated how schools should handle those cases that occur through “electronic communication,” which usually occurs outside of the school day.
I have never been one to promote abstinence as a realistic solution to epidemics, and I will probably be banned from TwitterMoms for saying this, but I think we need to seriously re-evaluate something far more basic.
Teens are addicted to text messaging.
A recent survey conducted by the The Wireless Association and Harris Interactive found: 45 % of teens say their cell phone is the key to their social life, and 47% say it would destroy or hurt their social life if they could no longer text on their cell phones. Another recent study showed teens send an average of 440 text messages a week; 110 in school.
How many emails do you send a week? If it’s close to 440, what are the chances that one or two of them might have been better off in your trash can instead of in somebody else’s inbox?
Which brings me to the self-inflicted humiliation I promised in my first paragraph. I do not know what a contemporary thirteen year old is texting about. I can guess. But, I don't presume to know.
But when it comes to what young teenagers feel, I think there is some truth in the idea that we have commonalities in the human condition.
So, I dug up that diary I’ve alluded to in past posts, the one I started in 5th grade and abandoned in 9th. Just what was I feeling in 1986 and 1987, in 7th grade, at age 13? It’s around this age that young people are most vulnerable to being bullied, as they search for social acceptance and self-identity at the same time.
I am not sure what value you might derive in reading these diary excerpts. For me, it’s interesting to have a dialogue between my younger self and current mind—wondering where the young girl went and how her feelings and thoughts grew into my current state—like buried roots of a stronger tree.
But, the reason I thought this was worth posting, the reason I’ll risk being told, in the parlance of texting, that this is TMI, or that I was a boy-crazy, insecure, or sadly silly, is because it shows a sense of proportion. Or in my case, disproportion.
I don’t think we can underestimate the impact cyberbullying has on the state of a young person. I read over my diary and think how impressionable I was. How much I wanted to fit in. How much I knew, deep down, that I’d never have the social currency of the popular kids.
How would I have reacted to being humiliated, in front of my peers, online? Or, what would it have taken for me to have participated in or passively condoned the act of doing something like that to another teen?
Maybe the first thing we can all do is try to remember. And, then think about what it means to introduce cell phones, texting, Facebook, and all the follows, into the crucible of adolescence.
Diary of a 7th Grader
I have a lot of work! I had to find and identify 40 leaves. I only got 35 so I will probably only at a 95. B and C are really starting to get on my nerves. They are going to parties without any chaperones and stuff like that. I think I’m never going to have a boyfriend! Why? Boys just never like me. I don’t know what to do. I really like A, but I can tell he doesn’t like me. He never talks to me. Love, Sarah
Ps—well great, I forgot what I was going to write. Oh, yeah, I am taking drama at Zachary Scott Theatre. KKMK-Magic 95 is my favorite radio station. I had a math test today. I tried out for a play a couple months ago. I made call backs but it was too much work so I couldn’t be in the play. Tootals, Sarah
PPS. I made first honor role. My GPA is a 4.4. Bye. Love, Sarah
Friday, December 5, 1986
I went to our school dance. I slow danced with A. Big deal. I think he hates me. He called me today. I almost cried. All he wanted was to know if I had the student handbook with me. How depressing. I really love him and I am so hurt that he hates me. Well, I think he hates me. I am so depressed. Love, Sarah.
I hate A. I hate A. He is so conceited. He is so ugly. Blah. Blah. I don’t believe I could have liked him. Now I like M. I KNOW he doesn’t like me.....This is really sorry. Blah again. Well, I hope I can go shopping today. My parents are out of town though. I have saved $48.64.
Ps- I ran the mile today in under 10 minutes. I was the fastest in my gym class. Love, Sarah
Thursday, February 26, 1987
The TORT committee released their findings today. The school board wants the boundaries to be changed so L and I have started a petition. I love M! C is having a B-Day party and I was supposed to bring a date. I asked M. I am so glad I did. I don’t know what he will say. I guess I’ll find out tomorrow. I hope he says yes!
He said he had to go to Dallas.
Tuesday, April 7, 1987
Tomorrow I run the mile in the track meet. Hard! I placed 2nd in the last meet. I still am scared! I still love M. I had a fight with D today but the note says it all. D and I are back as friends and I am really glad. I still love M. First honor roll again this makes 4/4 so far.
Thursday, May 14, 1987
Well, school is almost over. X asked me to go with him last Friday! I told him , well this is how it went.
“Hello, Sarah? This is X. I feel like such a wimp not asking you this in person but will you go with me?”
“Uh, X. I like you as a friend but nothing more.”
“Ok. See you Monday.”
I am so embarrassed. I almost hate him now! I feel guilty I guess. What! Now I LOVE J! He is so wonderful. I heart him tons! ......
Sunday, May 17, 1987
I still heart J. yesterday was Q’s birthday. We had a lovely breakfast at a café and afterwards, we went to a river! It was really fun but there was a thunder storm but we went in anyway. I was scared because of the lightning so I didn’t go in as much as the others. Then we came home and at 10pm and had a slumber party! I’m pretty happy...but...sad...I heart J. -30- bye for now.
Today's New York Times (July 5) has letters to the editor related to the story on Schools and Cyberbullies. It is interesting to see how people view the problem--many focusing on parents' responsibility, while those writing from a clinical point of view seem to see the picture as inter-related. One, even mentions the fact that the school may be the only place to moderate bullies because it is at home, in fact, where they often learn the behavior. Others, however, view it simply as a matter of free speech.