Yesterday, James Queally of the Star-Ledger in New Jersey reported on a case involving cyberbullying. The cyberbullying went on for three years and any parent reading what happened to the victim would share the parent’s concerns and frustration trying to get the situation addressed.
One of the interesting “factoids” in the piece was that the NJ State Police get about 500 hundred complaints of online bullying each year, but only a dozen or so rise to the level of a criminal act.
So what do we make of that? California recently passed a law prohibiting malicious online impersonation, but what about the rest of the country? There is a disconnect between available remedies and the number of those feeling harmed by online actions of others – actions that often involve online impersonation in the form of fake social network profiles.
In the wake of the Tyler Clementi suicide, New Jersey moved to strengthen its penal code as it would apply to online harassment or privacy invasion. Would the proposed legislation help the almost 500 New Jersey youth whose cases do not currently rise to the level of a criminal act each year? And is there a way to help the victims or targets of bullying or cyberbullying without criminalizing the actions of the aggressors who may just be engaging in what they think is a “lark” or “joke?”
We cannot wait until the next tragedy to ensure that there is some recourse or support for those being bullied or cyberbullied to the point where it is ruining their young lives. At the same time, we need to be careful about criminalizing too much. Being proactive by teaching our children and students about privacy and respect for self and others may be the single most effective strategy we have.
The U.S. Department of Education needs to not only condemn cyberbullying, but to actively promote research and curricula that address privacy in youth. And PTAs should be initiating discussions with their school boards about what their schools and community can do to promote privacy and decrease cyberbullying.