Responses to Cyberbullying and Solutions Beyond the Law


10.4.10 | There’s nothing fundamentally different about bullying and harassment that occurs in digital spaces, notes Harvard law professor John Palfrey, a participant in a New York Times Room For Debate forum on cyberbullying.

What is different, Palfrey writes, is that where kids interact has expanded to include online spaces such as Facebook as well as physical sites such as schools and malls.

John Palfrey

Palfrey, co-director of the Berkman Center for Internet & Society and author of “Born Digital: Understanding the First Generation of Digital Natives,” examines what we know about cyberbullying and whether current law is sufficient to discourage bullying in new hybrid online-offline environments.

His piece is one of eight responses from legal experts asked to comment on whether the death of Tyler Clementi signals a need for tougher laws against malicious acts online. Clementi, 18, a Rutgers University freshman, jumped to his death from the George Washington Bridge Sept. 22, days after his roommate and another classmate allegedly streamed video online of Clementi with another man in his dorm room.

“What we know from research is that the incidence of kids harming one another psychologically in ways that are mediated by new technologies is going up over time,” Palfrey writes. “But those same data do not tell us that the overall incidence of bullying is going up, nor that it is getting worse. We also can’t say that kids are meaner today than they were in the past.”

He continues:

What is different today is that the public spaces in which young people interact have expanded. Instead of interacting only in physical public spaces—schoolyards, parks, malls—much of the social life of young people takes place in a converged space that links the online and the offline. These new public spaces are often held in private hands, by corporations like Facebook, Google, MySpace, and many others. Young people are interacting and socializing both in these online public spaces and in the same streets that we, as their parents, grew up in. Bullying is no exception. The activity online is almost inevitably linked to activity in physical space, like the hallways of schools and campuses of universities.

Palfrey points to a new literature review, “Risky Behaviors and Online Safety” (PDF), released by the Youth and Media Policy working group at the Berkman Center for Internet & Society. The draft report by Samantha Biegler and danah boyd is available online for public comment.

Palfrey notes that criminal harassment laws can be helpful and law enforcement officials need support to be able to do their jobs in this arena. But a combination of outreach, education, mentoring and “being tough where we have to be” is needed to protect children in these new social spaces.

Read all responses and enter the discussion here.

Plus: The Boston Globe had a wonderful profile last week on danah boyd, a researcher at Microsoft New England, and her work on youth, social media and online privacy. Stay tuned for more interesting work to come from boyd who recently returned from Nashville and had some really interesting reflections on her blog about teens, social networks and technology.  boyd’s new book, “Growing Up with Social Media: How Networked Technologies Are — and Aren’t — Changing Everyday Teen Life,” will be out in 2011. 

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