Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s new bill proposal was approved on Monday, and has largely been supported by a population anxious to finally tackle one of the nation’s deepest-rooted and most ignored problems: Bullying. However, disagreements on whether bullies should be brought to court persist. A look at how the French have done it may give us more insight on this delicate issue.
What most observers noted as the most important element of the bill was the emphasis on cyber-bullying. With the internet rapidly spreading to every home and cell phone, new ways of bullying fellow classmates have emerged, notably through the use of Facebook and other social networks. Much attention has recently been drawn to the issue after instances of cyber-bullying led to the suicide of two teenagers in the state of New York last year. In addition, results from a census which surveyed close to 10,000 New York students have shown that 70% of the respondents thought cyber-bullying should be made illegal, reinforcing the need for adapted legislation.
This turn of events may seem strange to some. This reaction is largely based on the notion that cyber-bullying is not as bad as actual, physical playground bullies. At least for the time being, the internet does not allow you to punch, give a wedgie or nipple twist anyone. While it is important not to let the struggle against cyber-bullying distract us from its more ‘traditional’ form, it is true that the psychological damage that can be caused through virtual means is often underestimated.
Very well, you say, but what exactly is cyber-bullying? As it is not possible to physically harm people via your computer (unless it’s a laptop with sharp edges and you throw it on someone), cyber-bullying mostly takes on the form of psychological torture. It can range from something as basic as spreading insults and rumors (for example, creating a hate group on Facebook), to hacking into your schoolmate’s accounts.
Ok, this sounds very annoying, but in a way, pretty harmless as well. While this may be the case for adults, stakes are much higher when children and teenagers are concerned. It sounds cliché, but in high school, reputation matters. If your reputation has been tarnished, you will feel those effects every day. Other children will insult you, make fun of you, or simply ignore you. And it isn’t like the movies, where bullied kids always find a true friend and everything ends alright. In fact, when a kid is being bullied, and deemed ‘unpopular’, other kids will tend to avoid him. Becoming friends with a bullied kid runs the risk of being assimilated to his reputation, and getting bullied in return.
It is this growing sense of isolation that represents the biggest danger of bullying. Having close to no friends and being constantly taunted by your peers, you will probably grow up to have low self-esteem, be socially awkward, and in more extreme cases, give into depression or suicide.
But what probably remains the most vicious aspect of bullying is the powerlessness that it imposes. Bullying victims often find it extremely difficult to break the cycle. In effect, there are three ways to deal with a bully. You can fight back, but this may not always be as easy as it sounds or yield the desired results. You can ignore it, and just keep thinking “In five years they will work for me,” but that takes an incredible amount of resolve. Or you can just tell someone.
Now it would seem as if reporting a bully to a teacher or parent would take care of the problem. However, the punishment received by the bully often pales in comparison to what then happens to the kid who snitched. A child knows that if they tell on a bully, he or she will probably get away with a warning, maybe get grounded for a few days. The victim, on the other hand, is sure to get it much worse than before. This trend is reflected in a recent survey, finding that only 20% of bullied children had reported it, the others being too scared to speak up.
Why isn’t bullying dealt with more efficiently? It seems to me that there is a lack of comprehension surrounding the gravity of the problem. Many adults, and that can include teachers and parents, think of it as simple child’s play. Boys will be boys, you know. And a child seeing this reaction in his parents will probably become increasingly reserved and distant.
In the adults’ defense, it can sometimes be very difficult to differentiate between actual bullying and simple teasing. Kids will always be mean to each other, but drawing the line between playful mockery and recurring bullying is not easy. Especially on the internet, where no physical harm actually comes to the victim.
Considering this last point, there is an aspect of the cyber-bullying bill that has been controversially received. It has been suggested that cyber-bullying should be dealt with in court. Now there are of courses instances where bullying does go too far, and where criminal charges should be considered. But, as pointed out earlier, the line between teasing and bullying can be a thin one.
My fear here is that schools turn into giant panopticons. Do we want our children constantly watching each other, denouncing each other, and living in fear of being arrested? Do we want schools where playful teasing can lead to lawsuits, where the only thing keeping kids in line is the threat of judicial repercussions? I am of course exaggerating, but if we open this Pandora box, who knows where it will lead us.
Facing this difficult question of what to do with cyber-bullies, it could be useful to turn our attention to the other side of the Atlantic. Last year, the French government had to deal with similar issues, having received over 30 complains of internet harassment in less than 6 months. In June 2011, the Education Minister Luc Chatel and the association e-Enfance (“e-Childhood”) signed a convention that outlined responsibilities for both parties in the fight against cyber-bullies.
This convention raised two interesting points that I would like to share with you.
The first is the emphasis on teachers and school principals. They are given the primary responsibility to identify and report cases of cyber-bullying at school, and will be given special formations to help them in this new duty. This is obviously a necessary step if we want to actively act against bullying, and it makes sense to say that teachers are the best placed to observe and act upon these instances.
The second point is perhaps more interesting for our discussion, and addresses the issue of punishment. One of e-Enfance’s main contribution, in the words of their director Jutine Atlan, is their “privileged relationship with Facebook.” This particularly concerns the “report” option of the world’s biggest social network. While it is possible to report abuse on Facebook, this doesn’t always mean that the situation will be given an appropriate response. There as simply too many people reporting each other on Facebook, sometimes even as a means of cyber-bullying. As outlined in the convention, e-Enfance wants to make sure that inappropriate behavior on Facebook will be punished accordingly, e.g, by closing the guilty person’s account.
Now this may not seem like much, but the way I see it, it is an interesting alternative to making cyber-bullying a criminally punishable offence. The idea is simple: If you ask a teenager, ANY teenager, to write down a list of his absolute top five fears, I can guarantee that you will see it up there. Right between “dying a virgin” and “Al Quaida.” There is something much, much worse that can happen to a fourteen year old. In a shaky and terrified handwriting, tarnished by obvious drops of anguished sweat, lies this existential horror, this primal fear shared by every teenager on the planet: “Losing my Facebook account.”
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