Cyberbullying: Striking a Balance

In the offline world, children bully each other in ways which are seen, such as physical violence, and ways which are mostly unseen, like gossip and verbal commentary. That the Internet, particularly its myriad social networking sites, have become increasingly significant extensions of childrens’ lives presents an opportunity in this field. What administrators could not do so effectively in the offline world, such as prevent verbal abuse and hate speech, they now theoretically have the technological capability to do in the age of social networking. However, the extent to which this newfound ability should be exerted must depend on the various pitfalls that can come about when government and schools have too strong a presence in people’s personal lives.
Cyberbullying is a completely different animal than regular bullying. The Internet, in many cases provides anonymity, and in others, provides the opportunity for plausible anonymity, making it more difficult to catch perpetrators and decreasing the deterrent effect that law enforcement usually provides due to the decreased probability of negative consequences. Furthermore, Facebook and Twitter’s unprecedented ubiquity and potentials for being platforms for dissemination to much higher numbers of the population of a child’s offline social networks can make the effects of cyberbullying much more emotionally and psychologically devastating than regular bullying. Lastly, the Internet can be used as a mechanism which facilitates offline bullying and violence; ranging from sex offenders and fraudulent scammers — obvious criminals from which the law already pushes very hard to protect children — to online marketers who target children and their parents’ credit cards. Therefore, not only does the technology of the Internet present an opportunity for administrators and the government to prevent many forms of violence done to children, it is also the case that a failure to act appropriately constitutes a significant problem in that very real dangers do exist on the Internet.
So what should be done? Clearly private schools and public schools have different standards based on public schools’ status as extensions of government, subject to the same Fourth Amendment restrictions as police. However, this is not to say that private schools should be able to do whatever they like and public schools are powerless to protect their students. One stance on this policy issue is that schools should have complete access to students’ Facebook accounts so as to be able to completely monitor activity. My view is that this would be misguided, as students would still find ways to bully each other online (new sites such as Formspring pop up every day), and the school would have such oversight over students’ lives that new, more restrictive norms would be created so as to limit childrens’ potential to be content in their social lives (see my post on government intrusiveness on Facebook). However, schools also should not adopt a completely laissez-faire attitude, as inaction, or even indeed action only after harm is done,  can and will lead to negative consequences. If you wait for something bad to happen, then surely something bad will happen. I advocate a middle of the road approach, focusing on preventative measures, while still allowing normal means of law enforcement (such as students themselves coming forward with evidence, and there needing to be something akin to a search warrant for schools to be able to have access to Facebook documents) to provide for the safety of children.

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