Atlantic Cities

Criminalizing Cyber Bullying Could Ruin More Lives Than It'll Save

Criminalizing Cyber Bullying Could Ruin More Lives Than It'll Save
AP

There's a lot to be happy about in a newly released survey [PDF] from MTV and the Associated Press about trends in "digital abuse" among young Americans. Cyber bullying among people aged 14-24 appears to have declined since 2011. While that's arguably great news, the most important finding in the survey is actually this: When respondents were asked how often they considered the possibility that what they say online or via text message could get them "in trouble with the police," 69 percent of respondents said they'd considered the possibility "only a little" or "never." Seventy-one percent of respondents had given little or no thought to the possibility that their wireless interactions could get them in trouble at school. 

Those findings are especially troubling in light of the recent suicide of 12-year-old Rebecca Sedwick and the subsequent arrest of two of her alleged bullies, ages 12 and 14, in Lakeland, Florida. The two girls stand accused of harassing Sedwick online and in text messages so brutally that it prompted Sedwick to climb to the top of an abandoned building and jump to her death. The Polk County Sheriff's Department charged them with felony aggravated stalking after one of them posted on Facebook that she'd bullied Sedwick, knew that she had died, but didn't really care. Based on the poll results above, the question we have to ask is if Sedwick's alleged tormenters, who surely knew that they were being awful, also knew that what they were saying online could have criminal consequences IRL. To put it more bluntly, should a 14-year-old and 12-year-old be criminally punished for doing something that was clearly terrible but not clearly criminal?

Incidentally, Sheriff Grady Judd, who ordered the arrests last week, said earlier this week that he doesn't think police should be involved in most cyber bullying cases

"I think law enforcement doesn't need to be involved in bullying. We don't need to make criminals out of kids doing what I call early-stage bullying. That's not good. We should be the last ones that are called. I can tell you this: the first line of defense is parents. Parents need to pay attention. They need to quit being their child's best friend and be their child's best parent. That's what they need to do. So it starts at home."

"What I would like to see is a civil process and we'll have to think through this together whereby a school system can say, 'I understand you're bullying and you've used this device. OK, we've got this anger management school, we've got this anti-bully school, and by the way, we get to hold your device until you've completed the school.'"

It would be great if we didn't need a new law for schools to effectively intervene in bullying, but more relevant is Judd's remark about the importance of parents. Between 2011-2013, the MTV-AP survey recorded a seven percentage point increase in the number of cyber bullying victims who turned to their parents for help. Of those who did so, 66 percent said it made the situation better. The only conflict mediation strategy that was more effective was when bullying victims changed their usernames and phone numbers, or closed their social media accounts altogether. According to Judd, Sedwick held onto her phone and social media accounts even after switching schools.
 
If it's unreasonable to deprive a bullying victim of the Internet in order to protect her (and let's go ahead and say that it probably is), should law enforcement officials everywhere be locking up her persistent bullies, Grady Judd-style? Criminologist Nadine Connell writes in USA Today that doing so won't fix anything:  

[T]he use of criminal charges, as in the recent Florida case against two girls accused of bullying their 12-year-old classmate in the months before her suicide, does little to stem the tide of bullying or act as a deterrent for others. If history is any indication, the use of the criminal justice system as a punishment for bullying might not be beneficial to either victim or aggressor, especially because the youngest offenders fare poorly in our overburdened system.

Studies summarized by the National Research Council point to new developments in our understanding of the adolescent mind. Adolescents lack the capacity for self-regulation in emotional situations, and young offenders cannot gauge future consequences in the same way adults can.

Bullying behavior falls into this category, as students are often reacting out of emotional frustration and a need to feel in control. The threat of punishment is often discounted due to the heightened emotion of the moment and sensitivity to more immediate interests, such as peer pressure.

If there's a retort to Connell, it's that teens theoretically could be dissuaded from cyber bullying if there was a strict enough punishment that teens all knew about. When a teenager commits murder, there's seldom a question of criminal intent or knowledge of the law. But think about what it would take to apply this standard to cyber bullying: We could create criminal penalties for teens being mean to each other on the Internet, but they'd also have to apply to non-digital bullying. The laws would also have to be overly broad in order to provide multiple opportunities for law enforcement intervention and guarantee prosecution, and we'd probably want them to apply in some way or another to parents, because how can you punish a 12-year-old without at least asking why his or her parent let things get this far? 

With that broad net, we'd end up with the possibility of criminalizing bullies of every caliber—from the guy who called me a "faggot" after I picked the name Pierre on the first day of freshman French class, to cadres of pre-teens who call each other "skanks" on Facebook, to the really rabid and hardcore bullies who hounded Sedwick off a ledge—widening the school-to-prison pipeline considerably. Would it reduce bullying? Maybe. But it could also play out like the "zero tolerance" movement that was meant to prevent weapons in schools: such policies have resulted in children being punished for bringing a Lego toy gun to daycare and chewing a breakfast pastry into the shape of a pistol

Preventing cyber-bullying is important, but so is finding more and better ways to mediate disputes between children without involving the criminal justice system.

Top image: Catherine Devine, 22, reads instant messages on her laptop screen at her home in Kings Park, N.Y., Monday, Sept. 26, 2011. Devine had her first brush with an online bully in seventh grade, before she'd even ventured onto the Internet. (AP Photo/Kathleen Malone-Van Dyke)

Mike Riggs is a former staff writer at The Atlantic Cities. All posts »

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