Cyberbullying hysteria

From what I can gather, Australian politicians and the media are gearing up for some good old hysteria with regard to cyberbullying. And as part of the process is a recourse to regulation of social media sites to apparently deal with the problem.

For that reason, I thought I’d link to some reminders of actual evidence that suggests a more thoughtful approach:

  • Cyberbullying is just bullying and what we know from bullying is that it must be treated school by school and family by family and that entering the formal legal process is potentially destructive and never helpful to the victims. For this, read Emily Bazelon’s thoughful book.
  • Laws that prevent under 13’s from engaging in social media take control and discretion away from parents and educators and are making the problem worse. See here, here and here.
  • Teenagers engage in social media in a fairly sophisticated way it is important parents understand exactly what is going on before intervening. For this there is no better read than danah boyd’s latest book.

Chris Berg is right that an online watchdog is unlikely to help but he is not correct to say there are adequate legal protections. The point is, as he hints to at the end of his article, that legal protections are the wrong approach here.

3 thoughts on “Cyberbullying hysteria”

  1. “…that entering the formal legal process is potentially destructive and never helpful to the victims”

    I find this to be a limp-wristed cop-out, serving only to hide and excuse behaviour at schools that, in the workplace, would certainly result in police involvement.


  2. Josh, I respectfully disagree. My 18 year old brother whilst suffering a depressive disorder was targetted, harassed and attacked via social media, text message and in person by people he went to school with. The school refused to act, so he had no choice but to drop out. After he entered professional care after a suicide attempt his doctors not only gave him back his phone but let his bullies in to ‘visit’ him unsupervised. He took his own life after this (whilst in their care) as even in a ‘secure’ unit he couldn’t escape the relentless torture these people put him through. Three years on we his family have had to get court orders to access his social media accounts and email to see how bad this was. Even with the written proof of what these people did, evidence that some of the hateful comments were loaded using school computers and direct threats like “kill yourself or we’ll do it for you” were uploaded on the school wifi network we can get no action from the police or school.
    The scum who bullied my brother into a psychiatric ward and then bullied him to death got ‘special consideration’ on their VCE marks (as ‘one of their classmates died in traumatic circumstances (no recognition that they caused his death)), my parents got to bury their child.
    I’ve read the books you mention, and after battling through the justice system I know 3 things as fact:
    1. Our laws as they relate to cyber bullying and cyber stalking are dismal and give victims no protection in life (or in death)
    2. Our mental health system is a failure and is very very poor at treating mental illness that comes from this type of bullying.
    3. Too many good young people are dying or facing significant mental trauma because of the acts of cowards.


  3. Josh,
    In earlier times hysteria about racial discrimination has given us some poorly thought out laws that do harm to free speech, so I also am not keen on more laws that get the government in the way of ordinary discussion and disagreement.
    However, racial hate speech laws do serve the purpose of codifying the social sanction against hate speech. In Australia, measures are now being proposed that I expect will provide a better balance so as not to impinge on proper debate, but will remain as an announcement to the community of what is acceptable behaviour.
    There are many other laws that announce social sanctions. A trivial illustration is the law against expectorating on a street pavement. That law should not be necessary, it is almost never enforced, but it announces a standard of behaviour that is required by society.
    Cyber bullying is an extremely serious problem, and not just among young people. The cyber world is a new world, and one for which the social norms are not well established. Hysteria could lead us now to write bad laws. However, with what has been learned in the debate around racial hate speech, it may be possible to craft a sensible piece of legislation. Even if the law is rarely enforced by the courts, as a minimum we need to state a legal sanction against cyber bullying.


Comments are closed.