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Dismantling the (Cyber)Bully Pulpit

Jennifer A. Kurtz, MBA

In the 1960s we outed our friends' foibles in end-of-school-year slambooks (so called because we slammed the disallowed notebooks shut when a teacher appeared within shoulder-surfing proximity). Of course, bathroom stall and public wall graffiti about who to call "for a good time" have been around for centuries, even preserved in Pompeiian ashes (circa 79 AD).

We can paint over graffiti, and slambooks not confiscated by teachers or parents were buried in moving boxes or tossed decades ago. Not so for the images and words posted to social media sites.

The power of Internet posts to diminish spirits and destroy lives by trapping their subjects in a "no exit" situation can be attributed, in part, to the posts' untethered nature. They are unbounded by time, geography, attribution (often) and truth. The posts gain momentum through reciprocity (as participants "up the ante" of negative remarks) and network effects (as communications "go viral" in cyberspace). Anonymity adds a layer of protection for the perpetrator who does not necessarily have to see or even be acquainted with his/her target. Cowardly and gratuitous, these posts deserve the kind of scrutiny being afforded the continued revelation of NSA's clandestine citizen-monitoring activities. While we can only conjecture about the consequences of NSA's internal reporting, recent studies substantiate the consequences of cyberbullying: imitative behavior (those who are bullied learn to bully) and, most dramatically, suicide and depression among young people.

The Centers for Disease Control estimate that "suicide is the third leading cause of death among young people with approximately 4,400 deaths every year," with at least 100 times that number of attempts.i A studyii released by Leiden University in early March 2014 indicates that youths who had experienced cyberbullying were "3.2 times more likely to contemplate suicide than their peers, compared with children who experienced offline bullying, who were 2.2 times more likely to think about suicide."iii Such children may not only be a risk to themselves. An April 2014 article on "talking smack" cites a 2007 study by Ybarra, Diener-West, and Leaf that “also reported a connection between cyberbullying and bringing a weapon to school. In their survey (n= 1588) of 10- to 15-year-olds they found that cyberbullied youth were eight times more likely than all other youth to report carrying a weapon to school. While being cyberbullied, or being a cyberbully, can impact an individual at the time of the event, there are connections between the offline behaviors [that] also have long-term consequences."iv

Other studies note this connection between online and offline behavior that can lead to unhappy outcomes. Meanwhile, mass media channels and focused websites have reported on the suicides of young people like Ryan Halligan, Amanda Todd, Tyler Clementi, Jessica Logan, Hope Witsell and Megan Meier. Concern about the misuse of electronic communications led to the Megan Meier Cyberbullying Prevention Act (HR 1966), introduced in the US Congress in 2009 as an amendment to US Code Title 18 (Crimes and Criminal Procedures) that would have imposed fines and/or imprisonment for those found guilty. It was not released from committee.v States have taken an active role, however: 41 have passed related laws and adopted policy guidelines, eight have passed only laws, and one has adopted policy guidelines only. In 2005, the State of Colorado was the first to pass a state law (HB 05-1036) that included mention online bullying in this legislation "Concerning Inclusion of an Internet Safety Plan in Each School District's Safe School Plan."vi More recently, the Colorado House passed by a vote of 54 to 10 HB 14-1131, a bill to criminalize cyberbullying. It was introduced to the Colorado Senate on March 17, where it is assigned to the Committee on Education.vii

Young people have embraced communication and social networking technologies: of the 78% who have personal cell phones, 47% own smart phones.viii As of 2012, 95% engage in online activity, and 81% of them use some kind of social media.ix Theodore Roosevelt coined the phrase "bully pulpit" in reference to the opportunity represented by White House occupants to influence public opinion. But then, in the early 20th century, the term "bully" was slang for "excellent" (as in "bully for you"), not someone who victimized others. Certainly, social media sites can be used to influence public opinion, but the "cyberbully" connotation has a very dark side. It's time to dismantle that aspect of the (cyber)bully pulpit.

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iNoBullying (press release), "Six Unforgettable Cyberbullying Cases" (February 25, 2014). Retrieved from http://www.prweb.com/releases/2014/02/prweb11609229.htm

iiMitch van Geel, Paul Vedder, and Jenny Tanilon, "Relationship Between Peer Victimization, Cyberbullying, and Suicide in Children and Adolescents: A Meta-analysis,"JAMA Pediatrics. Published online March 10, 2014. doi:10.1001/jamapediatrics.2013.4143

iiiAs quoted in Gayle MacDonald, "Family doctors urged to intervene with cyberbullied kids," The Globe and Mail (March 24, 2014). Retrieved from http://www.theglobeandmail.com/life/family-doctors-urged-to-intervene-with-cyberbullied-kids/article17643559/

ivWilliam V. Pelfrey and Nicole Weber, "Talking smack and the telephone game: conceptualizing cyberbullying with middle and high school youth," Journal of Youth Studies. (April 2014, Vol. 17 Issue 3), pp. 400–401.

v"Megan Meier Cyberbullying Prevention Act - Amends the federal criminal code to impose criminal penalties on anyone who transmits in interstate or foreign commerce a communication intended to coerce, intimidate, harass, or cause substantial emotional distress to another person, using electronic means to support severe, repeated, and hostile behavior." Retrieved from http://thomas.loc.gov/cgi-bin/bdquery/z?d111:HR01966:@@@D&summ2=m&

vihttp://www.state.co.us/gov_dir/leg_dir/olls/sl2005a/sl_72.htm

viihttp://www.leg.state.co.us/clics/clics2014a/csl.nsf/fsbillcont/9F6D1A968E19084587257C360075E1EF?Open&file=1131_01.pdf

viiiMary Madden, Amanda Lenhart, Maeve Duggan, Sandra Cortesi, and Urs Gasser, "Teens and Technology 2013," Pew Internet and American Life Project. Retrieved from http://www.pewinternet.org/files/old media//Files/Reports/2013/PIP_TeensandTechnology2013.pdf

ix"Teens Fact Sheet," Pew Research Internet Project. Retrieved from http://www.pewinternet.org/fact-sheets/teens-fact-sheet/