Code of Conduct for Teachers and Students
Workplace Bullying

Cyber-bullying Through Social Media Threatens School Safety

Teens Vulnerable to Cyber-bullying postings on the Internet

In my last blog I addressed the issue of the need for a code of conduct in the classroom. The school year starts in just a few days so the time is right to explore cyber-bulling that can be used as a tactic to mock perceived misfits and embarrass them with their peers. Cyber-bullying is the most serious problem facing our schools today and the consequences can be devastating including suicidal ideation on the part of the bullied individual and even suicide. One reason to address the issue in my blog is the suspension of all ethical standards by those engaged in cyber-bullying.

I have previously blogged about the decline in civility in our society. The lack of civility has affected our schools in a way heretofore not seen. All too often we see fights in school and on school busses, students picking on and bullying those perceived to be different from the group, girls fighting girls, guns brought to school, and disrespecting teachers. These actions violate basic societal standards of fair treatment, respect, and caring for others. The perpetrators fail to take responsibility for their actions instead blaming what they see on the Internet, including video postings of cyber-bullying, and even to blame the person being cyber-bullied.

The social networking site MySpace describes at least three forms of cyber-bullying: (1) harassing conduct against another person; (2) exploiting someone in a sexual or violent manner; and (3) dissemination of false information that can be abusive, threatening, or obscene. The website ReelSEO provides useful resources to combat such behavior. Contributor Grant Crowell emphasizes the need to talk to students about cyber-bullying, digital citizenship, online responsibility, and overall safety.

The Cyberbullying Research Center is dedicated to providing up-to-date information about the nature, extent, causes, and consequences of cyber-bullying among adolescents. The Center defines cyber-bullying as "willful and repeated harm inflicted through the use of computers, cell phones, and other electronic devices." There are no shortages of recent cases where the bullied person committed  suicide. Here are a few examples:

1.      In 2006, Phoebe Prince, a 15-year-old Irish-immigrant high school student, killed herself after receiving nasty online messages and e-mails. Someone told the impressionable young girl who already felt different from her peers to go hang herself. The case prompted a look by Massachusetts at anti-bullying measures that exist in 41 states and the District of Columbia and 23 state statutes against cyber-bullying.

2.      In 2009, 13-year-old Ryan Patrick Halligan of Vermont hung himself after he had been bullied online. His death by suicide has been referred to as bullycide or even cyber bullycide. A rumor was started that Ryan was gay. The rumor and taunting continued into the summer of 2003. During the summer, Ryan approached a pretty, popular girl from his school on-line and worked on establishing a relationship with her ostensibly to squash the gay rumor. At the beginning of 8th grade he approached his new girlfriend in person. In front of her friends she told him he was just a loser and that she did not want anything to do with him. She said she was only joking afterwards in an on-line posting. However, she had copied and pasted their private exchanges into ones with her friends. They all had a good laugh at Ryan’s expense.

3.      On March 21, 2010, popular 17-year-old soccer star Alexis Pilkington  took her life following vicious taunts on Facebook. Pilkington’s nightmare didn’t end with her suicide. Even after her death, cyber-bullies continued to post harassing internet messages on her Facebook page which persisted on a Facebook memorial site postmortem, worsening the grief of her family and friends. Pilkington’s popularity and success in soccer seems to have created a level of jealousy that prompted the cyber-bullying comments.

4.      On October 1, 2010 it was reported that 18-year-old Rutgers University freshman, Tyler Clementi, killed himself by jumping off New York City's George Washington Bridge after two other university freshmen illegally recorded him in a sexual encounter with another man and broadcasting it.  The case stands as an example of how the Internet is being used as a tool of torment. 

In an effort to criminalize cyber-bullying, Representative Loretta Sanchez (D-CA) introduced a bill in Congress defining cyber-bullying as "any communication, with the intent to coerce, intimidate, harass, or cause substantial emotional distress to a person, using electronic means to support severe, repeated, and hostile behavior." The bill met with immediate push back from free-speech advocates who thought the language too broad and that, basically, you can't legislate against mean. It did not pass in Congress.

In the aftermath of cyber-bullying cases, more than 15 states have laws making cyber-bullying a harassment crime or making it easier to investigate or prosecute. But that’s not enough. We need a change in the culture of society that uses the anonymity of the Internet and social media postings to mock others and strip away their dignity. It often starts with offensive postings and can lead to videotaping the event that goes viral. The ethical standards of our schools need to catch up with the technology. Students must be taught an Internet ethic just as they should be taught societal ethics in the classroom. Given the amount of time most teenagers spend online each day, accountability and personal responsibility must become part of each schools’ response to cyber-bullying. There should be zero tolerance for such activities with suspension and ultimately expulsion the penalties for harassing another student in cyberspace. I ask: “Where is the moral outrage? Do we have to wait until a horrific event such as a mass suicide occurs before passing legislation making cyber-bullying a federal crime as are discrimination and sexual harassment?”

Blog posted by Steven Mintz, aka Ethics Sage, on August 15, 2011