A debate: Is cyberbullying inevitable, or can parents stop the tide?
I’m a parent. My editor, Liel, isn’t. But he is an expert in new media. And we were recently chatting about online bullying, a phenomenon that interests us both, but found ourselves completely at odds.
Hi, Liel, a person whose views are diametrically opposed to mine on everything and who has no child and therefore no moral authority but is an authority on new media so I bow to that (hereinafter, PVDOMENCNMAANMBT). How are you?
I got a little obsessed about cyberbullying this week, thanks to that recent New York Times story on how schools are dealing with the problem. I was struck by the parent who sued his daughter’s Beverly Hills school district for punishing her after she cyberbullied another kid. Her crime: She videotaped her friends, egging them on as they trash talked another girl, then threw the video up on YouTube. In the video, her friends mock the other girl’s looks (“she’s the ugliest piece of shit I’ve seen in my whole life”), her mother’s boobs, the fact that she’s a “slut,” the fact that she’s “a spoiled brat who isn’t worth a shit.” Charming. The school gave the girl who made and posted the video a 2-day suspension, and her father took the school district to court on behalf of his daughter, known as J.C. in court documents. A judge ruled that because the video didn’t cause “substantial” disruption in school, the girl shouldn’t have been punished. And the school district had to pay J.C.’s legal costs: $107,150.80.
The law on cyberbullying isn’t always clear. The Anti-Defamation League says that many states have anti-bullying statutes, but very few states specify whether schools can intervene in electronic bullying.
Regardless, I read the New York Times story as a parent, and as a parent, I wanted to beat J.C.’s dad, a recording-industry lawyer named Evan S. Cohen, with my laptop, then put the video on YouTube. After Cohen won the case, he insisted that his daughter keep the YouTube video online, even though she offered to take it down. He said he wanted to perform a “public service” and show people “what kids get suspended for in Beverly Hills.”
Um, dude. There’s legal culpability, and there’s moral culpability. What ethical lessons are you teaching your kid? That if she acts like a cretin and gets in trouble, daddy will bail her out? That it’s OK to humiliate another kid? (The victim’s name is repeated many times in the video, which I’m not linking to, because I’m not going to do Evan S. Cohen any favors.) Look, I’m a First Amendment absolutist; I agree that the girl has the right to free speech. Just as her father has the right to be a schmuck and a crappy parent. But I don’t have to celebrate that.
Dear Righteous Mama,
While I shall never defend the predilections of the litigious class, I’m afraid that the crux of our problem lies elsewhere. What we have here pertains neither to legal nor to moral culpability; what we have here is a question of platform.
You began your elegantly argued dispatch by stating that the conversation shall focus on cyberbullying, that is to say, bullying by means of Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, and the other blunt instruments of the World Wide Web. Unlike more traditional forms of bullying, the cyberbully is enabled not by virtue of his or her strength or size but by his or her access to widely available objects like a computer, a video camera, or a cellular phone.
Herein, I believe, lies not only the problem but also the solution. Mr. Cohen’s daughter, let’s call her Kid A, posted disparaging remarks about Kid B on YouTube. Kid B, arguably, could have easily logged on to her computer, fired up her webcam, and produced a video twice as scathing, twice as funny, and twice as popular. This, no doubt, would have taught Kid A a fierce lesson and would have saved the school district a pretty penny in legal costs.