The Pew Research Center announced the results of a survey on June 27th that found that one-third of teens who use the Internet have been targets of harassment. What is harassment, exactly? The study defined it as "annoying and potentially menacing online activities." And how exactly do you define that? According to one of the survey questions, this would include (out of a total of five questions): "Someone taking a private email, IM or text message you sent them and forwarding it to someone else or posting it where others could see it." It turns out that 15 percent of respondents said that this has happened to them. But is this really harassment? And if it is, what does it say about the teenage concept of personal boundaries on the permanent landscape of the Internet?
It’s a thin line. The concept of privacy is being painfully reworked by young people experiencing a collectively awkward puberty along with the web. Young people seek to immortalize funny things, interesting things, dumb things, any and all things on the Internet. Don’t believe me? Check out this online quote list that someone at my high school started. It got bigger and bigger as people started sending in funny quotes that were said in class. It’s hilarious, a little embarrassing, but definitely benign. (We’re still not sure who started it, but I have my suspects.) Where does it fall on the privacy line? To post a quote from real life on a site is no better and no worse than posting a private IM.
So this particular question in the survey, which also accounted for the largest chunk of "harassment," may therefore actually be blown out of proportion because it didn’t ask if this behavior was hurtful or malicious. True, it could be "potentially malicious," but anything posted about us can fall under that category, and kids are learning to expect and differentiate among the mucky things they encounter. Between MySpace, emails, and real life interactions, privacy is a wholly different entity for kids today, and I think they intuitively understand this.
Or maybe not. Cyberbullying, in part, led young Ryan Halligan to suicide. Kylie Kenney had to switch schools when other kids in school started a website entitled, "Kill Kylie Kenney." Despite these harrowing stories, school officials and local police continue to have a hard time protecting young people because of the anonymity of Internet bullies. An Epoch Times article cites Police Chief Darrel Stevens as saying, "It is a problem that is emerging…laws have not caught up with this type of bullying in most parts of America." In other words, cyberbullying is here to stay. At least for now.
How can you prevent cyberbullying? It’s certainly tough for kids, because cyberbullying is often an extension of what goes on at school. The organization, Fight Crime, has a 10-step list to preventing cyberbullying that stresses parental involvement. Parents need to notice their child’s changing behavior and attitude toward school. If your child is being bullied, tell her not to respond and to save any aggressive messages. This can be used as evidence in the event that things really get out of hand. Also check out NCPC’s resources on cyberbullying and how parents should deal with it. What if your kid is the bully? Sit her down and show her the Wayback Machine. It’s a web crawler that has recorded everything on the Internet ever. Remind her that everything you do over the Internet can ultimately be traced right back. Once that’s done, the authorities will get involved and it’ll get messy. Privacy—it goes both ways.