Hysteria over cruelty on social media is fueling panicky legislation exposing young people to “zero tolerance” suspensions, expulsions and prosecutions for harmless online speech. North Carolina has even made mocking a school official online punishable by a year in jail – but only if you’re a student. Cyberbullying is awful and its consequences can be heartbreaking, but hasty “lock-‘em-up” responses risk turning student editorial commentators into criminals. Schools are already abusing newfound “anti-bullying” authority to suppress lawful criticism of school policies and personnel.
The first generation of societal responses to online cruelty has ranged from ineffective to affirmatively destructive. Lecturing teens that “the Internet is forever” strains credibility – and it reinforces the worst fears of bullying victims that online slurs will lastingly define them. All young people need a foundational course in the law and ethics of online publishing at the middle-school level as part of a larger course in the effective consumption and creation of digital media. Educating all kids in the values and ethics of journalism – verify your facts, correct your mistakes, sign your real name and accept responsibility for your work, consider the impact of what you write on others – is the best hope of elevating the level of online discourse.
“In reality, the way kids treat each other on the Internet is merely an extension of the way they treat each other in person. The depersonalized features of technology can exacerbate the cruelty, but its roots are in the real world rather than the virtual one … [B]ullying, wherever it takes place, isn’t on the rise. It feels more pervasive only because the Web is pervasive.”
— Emily Bazelon
Sticks and Stones
Random House, 2012