Teresa Chin on Friday, Aug. 3rd
Making up lies about people is a longstanding staple of a middle school bully’s arsenal. Whispers of who-did-what behind the jungle gym, why so-and-so really got an A on the bio test, or the actual reason x and y broke up fill the hallways like so many clouds of Axe body spray. In the old days, a 13-year-old caught spreading these kind of rumors might find themselves facing detention, suspension, or a family meeting with the principal.
Today, it might land them in prison.
Just a few weeks ago, two Texas girls, ages 12 and 13 were charged with a felony after they created a fake Facebook profile for one of their classmates, and then used the page to smack talk both the victim and other kids at school. Because the pair decided to impersonate their frenemy online, their actions technically qualified as identity theft (Note to tech-savvy meanies: your screen name may hide your identity, but you computer’s IP address won’t). The crackdown on online harassment, or cyberbullying, is understandable given the increasing number of young people like Tyler Clementi who commit suicide after their peers trash their reputations online.
Yet somehow, it’s hard to feel like celebrating when we’re talking about preteens in prison. Kids can be mean as hell, but they can’t be completely blamed for the epidemic of cyberbullying. “When kids are younger, they haven’t fully developed perhaps their ability to understand the impact they have on others,” said Dr. Robi Ludwig, a psychoanalyst, in a recent article from Today Health. “It’s more of a self-centered existence. It’s a hallmark of adolescence, an over-focus on the self.”
In other words, there isn’t a whole lot to be done to stop middle schoolers from acting like jerkfaces. The adolescent rumor mill has been operating since before the days your grandpa looked good in a bathing suit, and it’s not likely to break down anytime soon. What has changed, however, is the way technology enables the impact and spread of these hurtful statements. As videogame designer James Portnow said in a recent NY Times article about internet trolling, “It’s like we gave the school bully access to the intercom system and told him that everyone would hear whatever he had to say. It’s time we take away the megaphone.”
But how? The problem is widespread and quickly becoming the norm. According to a 2008 study by UCLA psychologists, nearly three in four teenagers say they were bullied online at least once in the past year, yet only one in 10 reported such cyber-bullying to parents or other adults. Facebook has taken some steps to curb the hatespeak by allowing users to report abuse, but it can be weeks before fake or derogatory pages are actually removed.
Unfortunately that’s ample time for trolls-in-training to do irreparable harm to their victim’s self-esteem. And once an image has been shared, it’s nearly impossible to erase all the traces, virtually guaranteeing that some poor kid’s therapist will have something to talk about for years to come. Perhaps most frustrating of all, even if a kid is successful in getting the bullying material removed, there’s nothing in place to stop the culprits from doing it all over again.
The freedom of the Internet, while awesome in many ways, falls short when it comes to preventing cyberbullying. And social media platforms aren’t good candidates to act as cyber hall monitors because the first amendment actually protects many of the web’s frightful comments. Like it or not, it’s not up to Mark Zuckerburg to babysit our kids while they surf the web – it’s ours. And there are better ways of doing it than sending middle schoolers to jail for acting like the immature 12-year-olds they are.
In Los Angeles, for example, the school district has set up a special youth court program where young bullies are tried and sentenced by their peers. Rather than slap on the wrist or stint in Juvenile Hall, kids are ordered to write apologies, take sensitivity courses, or do community service. Other schools are making Internet behavior a part of their health curriculum, or holding seminars to educate youth about the dangers of cyberbullying. It’s an important step for the next generation, because given the amount of they will spend on the Internet, it’s more important than ever that they learn to use it appropriately.
There’s no doubt that bullying in all its forms deserves to be taken seriously, but so does the notion that young people have the ability to learn from their mistakes. Even though today’s tweens have the ability to wreak more havoc than prior generations, we would be remiss to treat cyber bullies differently than their schoolyard counterparts.
Because everyone in middle school is still developing out the person they want to be– online, and offline.