Through a Webpage Darkly: Cyberbullying and the Darker Side of Social Media
The more things change, the more they stay the same. People go to work, they go to school, and they go home. Every day. The Industrial Revolution gave us factories, Henry Ford gave us the assembly line, and Steve Jobs and Bill Gates are household names. But despite the radical changes Western Civilization has seen, there are some things that technology cannot change. As technology advances, people often laud the positive. It’s cool! It’s sleek! It makes our lives easier, and it lets us play Angry Birds! We do not like to think about the flip side—the advances that make our work and recreation easier also enable us to more easily hurt one another.
Cyberbullying was virtually unheard of ten years ago, but the issue has exploded in the media and in state legislatures since 2005. The whole premise behind the media storm is that children are being pressured and intimidated by their schoolmates—and in some instances, by their schoolmates’ parents—all through the Internet.
And the publicized stories are horrific. Megan Meier was only 13 years old when she took her own life. Lori Drew, a classmate’s mother, had created a fake MySpace profile through which she communicated with Megan while pretending to be a teenage boy in a nearby town. When the friendly relationship turned toxic, Megan committed suicide. In that case, officials were faced with a problem—there was no on-point statute to address Drew’s actions. While Drew’s actions were wrong, there was no state law concerning the matter. Although Drew faced federal charges regarding the fake Internet profile, she was acquitted of wrongdoing in 2009.
More recently, 15-year-old Phoebe Prince was subjected to a three months of relentless bullying both at school and on the Internet. Phoebe had recently moved from Ireland to Massachusetts and started high school when she drew the wrath of fellow students. Her sin? She had briefly dated a popular football player in the first few weeks of school. Students harassed Phoebe in the halls at school, and even threatened her multiple times. But the bullying did not stop there. Reports state the same students who harassed Phoebe at school also took to the social media through Twitter, Craigslist, Facebook, and Formspring to continue the harassment. When Phoebe hanged herself in January 2010, some students took to Facebook again and made disparaging remarks on the Phoebe Prince Memorial Facebook page. In May 2011, five of Phoebe’s classmates were sentenced on charges ranging from criminal harassment to civil rights violations without bodily injury. All of the students held responsible were given probation, and three also received community service sentences.
With the advent of stories like these, and perhaps in response to situations similar to that of Megan Meier where local officials found themselves unable to bring charges, state legislatures have stepped in an attempt to save children. In a July 2012 study sponsored by the Cyberbullying Research Center, Sameer Hinduja, Ph.D. and Justin W. Patchin, Ph.D., determined 49 states have statutes that address the topic of bullying – but only 15 states have statutes that specifically address cyberbullying.
Hinduja and Patchin separated “electronic harassment” into a separate category. On the federal side, the House of Representatives introduced H.R. 1966 in April 2009 – the Megan Meier Cyberbullying Prevention Act. Although nothing came of H.R. 1966, the fact that the issue was even introduced and discussed in the House speaks to the concern the Meier case sparked on the national stage.
Outside legislation, new policies and organizations specifically address the issue, including the Cyberbullying Research Center and Stopbullying.gov. (Stopbullying.gov is a government resource with a specific section devoted to cyberbullying – including a definition of the term and tips for parents and children to deal with the situation together). The policies and organizations focus on prevention, with an eye at ending cyberbullying altogether. However, some things cannot be fixed by legislation and advocacy organizations. There are reasons why we have these statutes in place, much like we have statutes that prohibit acts like armed robbery and assault. No matter what high ideals we have about ourselves, we still have a tendency to occasionally snicker at the misfortune of others. We may not take it to the extremes seen in the cases of Megan Meier and Phoebe Prince, but we also cannot deny human nature. For all the fun and useful innovations modern technology has provided us, the darker side of technology shows it can be easily misused, and it is unrealistic to think bullying or cyberbullying will someday disappear altogether.