Perhaps it is about time that New York followed suit and, like the majority of states in the US, passed legislation related to the mounting problem of cyberbullying.
The newly proposed law places much emphasis on school officials to intercept and manage alleged cyberbullying incidents among students.
Specifically, the law requires schools to establish a formal process to deal with cyberbullying. It directs schools to designate an official to investigate cyberbullying complaints.
When warranted, school officials are directed to alert local police of incidents so that they can work with authorities to develop appropriate interventions on a case by case basis.
Although originally included, the law currently on the table does not allow prosecution of offenders. It is the exclusion of this directive that many lawmakers feel 'waters down' the law's legislative effectiveness. Many even question if the law will have any preventative impact without the threat of prosecution for offenders.
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While the spirit of the law is indeed good, as with many situations, the devil is in the details. The first concern is how incidents will be defined as cyberbullying. The law lays out guidelines for this task, however in reality, it will be the interpretation of these guidelines that will make all the difference.
Unfortunately, the way lawmakers and adults define cyberbullying, in general, may be far different than the kids to whom this law is really targeted.
Unlike bullying, which is clearly defined as an act against another with malicious intent, the definition of cyberbullying is often grey. While certainly many instances of cyberbullying are clearly definable in reality because of the lack of direct face to face contact, it is difficult to clearly interpret intent.
One teen sender's sarcastic banter may be perceived by the intended receiver as baseless and cruel. In reality, unlike bullying, which is defined from the perspective of the offender, cyberbullying is defined by the perspective or interpretation of the receiver.
Kids, especially teens, can seem very nasty and even cruel to each other at times. Social networking sites such as FormSpring have demonstrated this. Participants post questions on the site and encourage friends to answer.
Teens have taken the intent of the site to a new level by posting such questions as "Am I pretty?"
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Don't be mean!
The responses they receive can often be brutal and mean. Some teens see this as an opportunity to 'jokingly' attack their peers. They report that their responses are justified because "Hey, don't post the question if you can't handle the answers."
When asked about cyberbullying, the majority of teens respond that they don't condone or participate. When asked specifically if they ever post sarcastic remarks or negative jokes on their friend's social networking pages, many teens offer an affirmative response. When further questioned, however, they report that they do not consider this behavior cyberbullying.
A host of teen suicides have recently been related to cyberbullying. In many of these cases the messages and posts to and about these teens were obviously brutal and malicious. There are also other situations where the teens themselves were involved in sarcastic banter back and forth between friends and associates. While the intent of the senders may not have been malicious, the teens receiving these posts perceived them this way.
Another difficulty with the new legislation relates to intervention. The law calls for school officials to contact law enforcement when "appropriate" to develop situation specific interventions. This directive is vague at best and leaves schools open to make qualitative judgments about when or if they will contact the police. Furthermore, it is unclear how law enforcement is to respond once they are contacted.
The initial legislation called for prosecution of offending teens. Many worry that the exclusion of this directive from the bill will result in a law that packs little punch and as such will not serve as the deterrent to cyberbullying. In reality only time will tell.
The fact that legislation has even been written and subsequently passed in itself sends a bold and important message: cyberbullying will not be tolerated. At minimum, the law highlights the need to talk with teens in their schools about cyberbullying.
The force of the legislation is truly in the hands of schools officials. The first task at hand will be for schools to clearly define cyberbullying to their students. By encouraging perspective and empathy through interactive discussion in targeted workshops and forums, students will hopefully comprehend the impact of cyberbullying .
Although many criticize the power of the legislation, some legislation is better than none. At a time when there is growing concern about cyberbullying, the hope is that the legislation will highlight the need to at least do something. Through education and understanding, there is always hope.
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