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A debate: Is cyberbullying inevitable, or can parents stop the tide?

Marjorie Ingall
Liel Leibovitz
July 12, 2010
(Photoillustration: Len Small/Tablet Magazine; photos: iStockphoto)
(Photoillustration: Len Small/Tablet Magazine; photos: iStockphoto)

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.

It occurs to me, as I write, that a good analogy may be the debate about firearms. Somewhere in my wallet, next to the rarely used gym card, lies a lifetime membership card from the National Rifle Association. I belong to the NRA primarily because I believe that there will always be vile creatures like Kid A slouching around, looking to cause all sorts of anguish, and that if the Kid Bs of this world were left without the means of self-defense, evil will eternally triumph. In other words, rather than have the government (or the parents, or the schools, or the courts) protect me, I’d rather be given the chance to protect myself.

With technology as prevalent as it is, there’s little need to worry about regulation or intervention. I watch with dismay as parents and teachers try to impose their authority on what is, by design, a virtual chaos, where nothing is true and everything is permitted. As is the case with sex, drugs, and rock n’ roll, I firmly believe that the best way to prepare young people to enter the thicket of the Internet is to instill in them the good taste and common sense they need to navigate through temptation and ruin, and then let them explore on their own.

As they do, they are very likely to come across the mean bastards who make up so much of humanity’s ranks. And when they meet those mean bastards, there is no better tactic, I think, then striking swiftly and resolutely, speaking one’s mind and standing one’s ground. Thankfully, kids now have at their disposal the tools to do just that.



Seriously? Your response to bad behavior is to encourage worse behavior? If one kid brings a 9mm to math class, the solution is to give the kid at the next desk an Uzi?

Rather than encouraging a kid to use fists and guns and YouTube, a parent’s job is to teach healthier ways of self-expression and the importance of kindness. One of the hair-tossing, sneering, Valley-Girl-inflected participants in that video said on camera, “Nobody doesn’t talk shit.” Grammatically questionable, but factually indisputable. Lashon hara is everywhere. But as parents, we should at the very least teach kids that you don’t throw your shit-talking up on the Internet where the object of said feces-spew and her friends and family can see and hear it.

You seem to think my answer to bad online behavior is to regulate technology. That’s not what I’m saying at all. I don’t believe it’s actually possible—look at how successful the TV and recording industries have been at stopping illegal downloading. But I think—and perhaps you find me hilariously naïve—that the world is made up of communities. Not just the big anonymous community that is the Internet, but smaller, Venn diagram-y communities—schools, neighborhoods, religious institutions, families—who know each other in the flesh as well as in the pixel. And a parent’s job is to convey the values that will make a child a good, moral member of those communities.

The story here is a father whose kid did something despicable, who not only excused her behavior but also insisted that he was fighting for American values. Feh. The kid is a bully, and the dad is a bully. The daughter offered to take the video down, and the dad wouldn’t let her. There was a teachable moment there, and he blew it like a vuvuzela. There was a chance to show Kid A how to do teshuvah—nuke the video, apologize to the girl, accept the school’s punishment, get your own punishment at home, and have a serious discussion about values and morals—and Daddy A abdicated that responsibility.


Dear Righteous,

I could not agree with you more that a parent’s job is to convey the values that will make a child a good, moral member of his or her community. Which is precisely why I choose to focus on that community—or, more accurately—on the environment in which the kid will come of age. That, I’m afraid, is where technology comes waltzing in.

If we are to learn one thing from the story we’ve been discussing, it is that both bully and victim are now immersed in a media torrent that leaves little room for privacy. This, of course, is no new discovery, but it is one, I believe, that remains largely baffling to parents, educators, and other figures of authority who are a day too late and a generation too old to grasp the full meaning of this tempest.

The social dramas of teendom now unfold in chatrooms and profiles and text messages, which makes it a bit strange to rage against one brash lawyer for forcing his daughter to keep an offensive video posted online. If anything, said gentleman may have inadvertently stumbled onto a greater emotional truth, namely that removing a video from YouTube could never calm the tides of a roaring, hypermediated communications sphere made up of intimate disclosures and revealing messages. When your average teenager continuously shares the most private details of his or her life in 140 characters or less, asking to remove one bit of film, no matter how hurtful, is like sticking a finger in the dam: very bad for the finger, and meaningless to the dam.

Parents, you write, should teach their kids to resist posting malicious content on the web. But malicious is what the web is about. While there are still bastions of thoughtfulness out there—we’re fortunate enough to be writing on one now—the medium lends itself mostly to snark and snide, to the intrusive and the unsubstantiated, to the frivolous and the ferocious and the fun. It favors the immediate and rewards the shameless with followers and fans. And while there is still a discernible boundary between the lighthearted and the vicious, that boundary is being eroded each day, too often with the consent of all involved. With every rant we hurl via Twitter, with every relationship ended via a Facebook status change, every time a thought or a feeling that should have been sublimated erupts into the ether, we’re slouching a little closer to Gomorrah.

It may be time, then, to wave the notion of lashon hara goodbye and realize that anyone growing up with friending and liking and tweeting would never again know the pleasures of a world in which privacy is upheld and gossip is localized. Rather than expect our children to adhere to growingly unrealistic rules of conduct, let us teach them instead how to use the tools at their disposal.



First of all, “figures of authority who are a day late and a generation too old”? Lucky for you we’re separated by the Internet or I’d hit you with my walker.

Surprise, surprise: I don’t agree. Technology doesn’t change everything. I presume that even as we wear jetpacks and order Rosie the Robot to do the laundry, we will continue to teach our kids not to walk up to classmates and call them ugly, spoiled, brat, slut—in person, or online. The medium changes; the message is the same. I know you think I’m tilting at windmills, and it wouldn’t be the first time. But we live in a world that would be utterly alien to, say, Jews on the Lower East Side in 1910, yet we still have values of family, community, kindness, tzedakah, good humor. We haven’t given up everything that makes us human.

And remember the real human cost here: Bullying, online and in person, hurts everyone. Here’s a new survey from the July issue of the Archives of General Psychiatry showing that cyberbullying is dangerous for the bully and the victim. Researchers at Turku University in Finland found that bullying victims were at increased risk for emotional problems, poor general health, recurrent abdominal pain, and problems falling asleep. But the bullies suffered too—they had higher-than-average rates of headache and greater self-perceived difficulties in life. They also had more difficulty concentrating and a higher risk of substance abuse.

The upshot: We teach kids to look both ways before crossing. It isn’t hard to teach other basic rules: Think before you text. Don’t put things on Facebook that’ll get you negged by a future employer. Don’t send an email you wouldn’t want Grandma or your principal to read. Don’t give out your home address online. It’s basic education for our New World. And, hey, be kind, in every medium. As our old friend Rav Hillel said, “That which is hateful to you, do not unto another: This is the whole Torah. The rest is commentary.”

Marjorie Ingall is a columnist for Tablet Magazine, and author of Mamaleh Knows Best: What Jewish Mothers Do to Raise Successful, Creative, Empathetic, Independent Children.

Marjorie Ingall is a former columnist for Tablet, the author of Mamaleh Knows Best, and a frequent contributor to the New York Times Book Review.

Liel Leibovitz is editor-at-large for Tablet Magazine and a host of its weekly culture podcast Unorthodox and daily Talmud podcast Take One. He is the editor of Zionism: The Tablet Guide.