According to the Wall Street Journal, a recent report on cyberbullying suggests that, unlike other Internet scares, this one is well-founded, but it questions some of the regulatory efforts that are gathering steam.  “The report, by the Progress & Freedom Foundation, a right-leaning Washington think tank that focuses on technology public policy, says that data from child-safety researchers” indicate that much of the furor is overblown.

I disagree strongly: The furor is not overblown and we do need Federal laws to stop cyber bullying, harassment and abuse.

The right-leaning think tank’s objections to new anti-cyber bullying laws are that:

  • Worries over online predators are overblown because one study of arrests from 2000 to 2006 showed that most of the offenders approached undercover investigators, not kids.  I’m glad the offenders approached undercover investigators.  But that’s no reason not to have laws.  Between 2006 and now, offenders have gotten smarter.  And, of course we want laws so we can protect the kids who are approached.
  • They estimate that threats due to peer-to-peer bullying are more serious than those due to cyber bullying.  Even if that’s true, that’s no reason to abandon kids who are targets of cyber bullying, harassment and abuse.  As shown by the case of Lori Drew, without Federal laws, cyber bullies can’t be prosecuted effectively.  The Judge acquitted this adult even though she set up the MySpace site that was used to harass and abuse teenager Megan Meier until she committed suicide.
  • Laws pose “thorny issues” that are entwined with free speech.  Again, that’s no reason not to enter the thicket.  That simply lets us know that the laws will have gray areas and both the law and the interpretations will be continuously evolving as hardened criminals find loopholes.  Laws encourage angry, potentially vindictive people to think twice before doing anything impulsive and rash.
  • Laws would make statements that defame, embarrass, harm, abuse, threaten, slander or harass third parties illegal online, even though such statements would be allowed if said on a playground.  That’s not a problem; that’s an obvious benefit.  That acknowledges the truism that statements made in a local context or face-to face usually have very different consequences than hostility put out to the whole world on the internet, especially if the statements are anonymous or made through the safety of false identities.
  • We can solve the problem best through better education.  Nonsense.  Of course, education and vigorous stop-bullies programs are very helpful, but they’re not enough.  Education alone does not yield the most benefits.  Education, anti-bullying programs and enforced laws all together yield the most benefits.
  • Teaching people to behave civilly online is no different than teaching children to use proper table manners, to cover their mouths when they sneeze or to say, “thank you.”  That’s also nonsense.  If an adult is a slob at home, no one else is harmed.  If someone gets drunk and disruptive at a restaurant, a movie theater or a ball game, they can be asked to leave or ejected or arrested.  The harm caused by eating with the wrong fork or not saying “please” or “thank you” is minor compared to the harm that can be caused by cyber bullying, harassment or abuse.  Ask the families of Megan Meier or Jessica Logan, both of whom committed suicide after they were made the targets of cyber bullying.  Ask the families of the thousands we don’t hear about them in the media.  They suffer, helpless to stop their abusers, but valiantly and quietly to struggle through life.

Online attacks are becoming an epidemic.  Some sites even specialize as forums for anonymous bashing and attacks.

Laws are made to state the standards to which we aspire and to diminish people’s ability to harm others as much as possible.  Laws may be imperfect and enforcement may be difficult and spotty, but that’s better than nothing.  I’d rather have anti-bullying laws that protect kids 90% of the time and have difficulties 10% of the time, than have no laws to stop cyber bullying and leave kids vulnerable 100% of the time.

Our laws and even our system of checks and balances are founded on our understanding that no matter how much education people have, they will often seek power and revenge.  They won’t always be good and sweet and kind.  If given the chance, people will be mean, nasty and vicious to others, especially if they can act anonymously or the target can’t fight back effectively.

We must rise to the challenge posed by new technology and keep evolving laws and enforcing them the best we can.

Resource Cited: http://blogs.wsj.com/digits/2009/07/02/cyberbullying-report-opposes-regulation/?mod=rss_WSJBlog

Ben Leichtling, Ph.D. is author of the books and CDs “How to Stop Bullies in Their Tracks,” “Parenting Bully-Proof Kids” and “Eliminate the High cost of Low Attitudes.” He is available for coaching, consulting and speaking.  To find practical, real-world tactics to stop bullies and bullying at home, school, work and in relationships, see his web site (http://www.BulliesBeGone.com) and blog (http://www.BulliesBeGoneBlog.com).

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