In light of the recent slew of suicides plaguing the LGBT community, especially Tyler Clementi’s, cyberbullying seemed to me like a topic that was current and, more importantly, for which debate was truly necessary. Tyler’s roommate filmed him having sex with another man and put it on the internet, an incredibly severe case of cyberbullying. It is not an issue over which heated argument usually takes place, perhaps because, as I said in my paper, it seems like something on which most people would agree. For this reason I chose not to explore whether we should take measures to limit cyberbullying but to discuss the ways in which we could go about it. In this I faced issue because the debate pool is so small. The outrage over cyberbullying is continuous, but one rarely sees anyone proposing what we can do about it.
Writing this paper was difficult in the sense that my position is one that is somewhat difficult to defend. Not because I think it a bad position, but because it is a more complicated way to impress upon children the severity of the consequences cyberbullying sometimes has. Many people would want the quickest and easiest solution, but what is easy is not necessarily what will cause the most progress.
Some of the strength in my paper comes from the passion I have not only for the topic but for the principles of free speech that I try to defend. It is with great trepidation I approach the blurry, uneven line between protected and unprotected speech, and while I am aware that some will disagree, I believe I adequately defended my belief in preserving free speech as much as possible.
Bullying is something that has always faced children and teenagers; it transcends cultural boundaries, physical boundaries, boundaries of ethnicity. Children fear what is different from them, or sometimes they have been taught prejudices by their parents. Regardless, a majority of children will confess to have been bullied in some way during their childhood. Still more will say that they have bullied other children in some way, be it physically or by insulting a friend behind their back. Since the internet became something most children have some access to during the nineties and early 2000s, bullying was able to take a turn that made it all the more frightening and dangerous in its anonymity. With no face-to-face communication and no need to use one’s real name on the internet, it’s easy for someone to say cruel things to another person without that person ever knowing his or her tormenter’s identity. The recent slew of suicides by gay teens due in part to cyberbullying shows just how current and how unresolved it still is. Cyberbullying may seem like a topic for which no debate is necessary; it is hurting children, and something needs to be done. While the assumption that the children are everyone’s concern isn’t based entirely in fact, neither is the idea that it isn’t up for debate. A vast majority, of course, will argue that cyberbullying needs to stop; the problem is the methods used to stop it.
There are two major sides to the issue, and they are entwined with political ideologies. One school of thought says that we should illegalize cyberbullying outright to stop the problem immediately in its tracks. This falls in line with a more liberal viewpoint, as conservatives are typically less supportive of prohibiting speech (besides in the case of obscenity). As I do not consider myself either liberal or conservative, my personal view on the subject coincides with a somewhat libertarian stance: education and regulation are more effective than legislation.
The first stance, heretofore referred to as the “liberal stance,” is one with which I take issue for several reasons. I am passionately anti-censorship, and therefore the thought of illegalizing any form of speech that is not immediately panic-inducing irks me. To follow a “slippery slope” line of thinking would of course be fallacious, but I truly believe that the further we go in censoring different types of speech, the closer we will get to banning our current protected speech. For another, there are countless examples in American history of the fact that something as wildly out of hand as cyberbullying is far, far easier to control and regulate when it is not made illegal. In the 1920s, during the Prohibition Era, crime rates soared; alcohol was being made in the United States or shipped in illegally. The mob was making a business of selling it, which increased the rate of violent crimes. Today, the ongoing debate over marijuana has similar implications. When abortions were illegal, they were performed in significantly more dangerous environments than hospitals or clinics by people who were unqualified and which often resulted in significant physical harm to the patient. These may not seem like they connect to cyberbullying, but then again, alcohol prohibition and abortion don’t seem to relate much either; what they have in common is the shared principle that regulation is superior to legislation.
Talk of the danger to free speech leads to the Megan Meier Cyberbullying Prevention Act. Proposed in 2009 to the House of Representatives and named for a girl who committed suicide as a result of cyberbullying, the act suggests that “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, shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than two years, or both” (Sanchez 1). On the surface this seems like a good idea, but thinking more deeply about it, federal legislation will not improve anything. Putting in place consequences such as fines and jail time does nothing to quell the desire of people to break the law—it just puts them in fear of breaking it. Ultimately, this does not solve the greater problem. Furthermore, the most common age group to experience some form of cyberbullying are fifteen- and sixteen-year-olds (Horn 1). Plenty are younger. To ensure that children are fully educated about cyberbullying laws would take as much effort as any educational program and would be half as effective.
Furthermore, a cyberbullying law would be challenging to enforce. The internet already provides a level of anonymity so that the victim may not know his or her attacker, and many internet-savvy teens know ways to get around being tracked. Finding the perpetrators would be time-consuming and difficult, and since they are most often children in their early teens, the courts would not be able to punish them to the full extent of the law. Obviously a judge could not sentence a young teenager to actual jail time; the bully would most likely spend a short stint in juvenile detention and be out before they’ve learned a lesson.
The most compelling argument I have seen in support of not creating legislation is said by the authors of StopCyberbullying.org: “Unfortunately, there is no ‘one size fits all’ when cyberbullying is concerned” (Aftab 1). Every case of cyberbullying has different circumstances, different reasons the crime is committed. Some children are bullied because they are overweight; some are bullied because they are gay or are stereotyped as such; some are bullied because they don’t come from an affluent family. For most children there is a root cause, a basic reason they choose to torment other children. We must try to quash this cause before it can take hold or, in the cases when this fails, look at the individual for the root cause and try to help the child or teenager from there.
For this I propose we emphasize one thing: education. First and foremost we must educate parents on the matter because it is from our parents that we gain much of our system of morals. Parents must be encouraged more than ever before to promote tolerance and nonviolence toward one’s peers. This, however, is something that is difficult to control. What is marginally easier to regulate is education in schools. Of course, any student can recall a time when they were lectured about bullying, a time during which they surely did nothing but roll their eyes and snicker to their friends. These seminars do not feel real to children, and more than that they do not interact with students on an individual level. School counselors should be required to meet with students and get to know them on a personal basis so that students will feel safe talking to the counselor. I know from personal experience that during middle, junior, and high school I never felt like my counselor was someone I could talk to about my problems. This will serve the dual purpose of providing students with someone who will listen to them and putting them in a one-on-one situation where they must personally interact with the educator and with the issue of bullying. If legislation does pass, it is essential that these methods used to educate children about the consequences of bullying must not, under any circumstances, become lax. With laws in place, the distinction will have to be made that the reason they are being told to respect their peers is not simply because they face legal consequences otherwise.
It is not, of course, anything rare to hear stories from bullied children about how they approached authority figures and were told that they needed to try to fit in more or to be more “manly.” I follow a blog called “Mark Reads Harry Potter,” and occasionally Mark Oshiro, the maintainer of the blog, shares anecdotes from his childhood. As a gay child, Mark was frequently ridiculed, and when his parents talked to his principal, this trained school official said this: “Playful teasing is hardly what I would call bullying, Mr. Oshiro. Besides, it’s not like his attacks on you, however mean, are unwarranted” (Oshiro 1). Mark was blamed for his own bullying, and unfortunately this isn’t uncommon. This is perhaps the only area in which I would approve legislation being passed: school officials may not, under any circumstances, show prejudice toward a student for the manner in which he or she chooses to act or for anything like race, ethnicity, or sexual orientation. Such a situation as being bullied with no escape due to ineffectual authority figures hinders the education to which every child in America is entitled.
This is an issue of enormous import. Suicide in children and teenagers is on the rise. Those who do find the will to get through it often face years of therapy. It is a terrible thing, and this is why I propose what I think will be the most effective action in the long term, rather than the short. I propose not passing legislation to ban a form of free speech, not to use scare tactics to keep the cruelty in children at bay. I propose interacting with students on an individual basis to try to eradicate some of that cruelty so that both the tormenter and the tormented are helped. The anonymity involved in cyberbullying provides children and teens with a way to escape guilt more easily—legally, with their parents, and with themselves. We must make it clear to children that the things they say, even on the internet, can cause someone to lose hope. We must try to instill a sense of empathy in students. It is only through these methods and not through federal legislation that we will see real change in our students and, eventually, our adults.
Aftab, Parry. “Prevention.” StopCyberbullying.org. Web. 25 Oct. 2010. <http://www.stopcyber bullying.org/prevention/index.html>.
Horn, Leslie. “43 Percent of Teens Affected by Cyber Bullying, Study Says.” PCMag.com. 20 Oct. 2010. Web. 25 Oct. 2010. <http://www.pcmag.com/article2/0,2817,2371179,00.asp>.
Oshiro, Mark. “Mark Reads ‘Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix’: Chapter 13.” Mark Reads Harry Potter – Buzznet. 29 Aug. 2010. Web. 25 Oct. 2010. <http://markreadsharrypotter. buzznet.com/user/journal/7403641/mark-reads-harry-potter-order/>.
Sanchez, Linda T. “Bill Text – 111th Congress (2009-2010).” THOMAS (Library of Congress). 2 Apr. 2009. Web. 25 Oct. 2010. <http://thomas.loc.gov/cgi- bin/query/z?c111:H.R.1966:>.