Cyber Bullying: Are the Kids Really Alright?

Posted in The Gnovis Blog

Megan Meier (new window)‘s story is the latest in a series of concerns about how awful the internet is for our children. The case is without a doubt tragic. And it does highlight how easy it is for people (not just teens) to be cruel or manipulative given the physical and emotional distance granted by a computer monitor.

The Associated Press (new window) has a brief article up about her death that is pleasantly free from some of the hystreria that surrounds kids and internet use. In brief, Megan hung herself after the parent of one of her friends with whom she’d had a falling out, created a fake profile on MySpace and harassed her with messages and cruel (but phoney) rumors. You can find the November 20th police report here (new window).

Unlike a lot of the very reactionary response in much of the American press, the Canadian Broadcasting Company’s "Search Engine (new window)" did an excellent job separating the hype from the reality of teens’ online lives. There is no doubt in my mind that teens can get into a lot of trouble on the Internet. It is probably for the best that my parents never found transcripts of my IM conversations as a 15-year old (the language kids know!).

Of course, the sad and most troublesome aspect of the Megan Meier case is that her tormenter wasn’t a school mate. Her tormenter was an adult, a parent, and a family "friend."

Cyberbullying between teenagers and cyberbullying between an adult and a 13-year old girl strike me as very different kinds of problems. Lori Drew, the mother who harassed Megan to suicide has not, yet, been charged with any crime. In fact, Ms. Drew actually brought a case against the Meiers for destroying the Drews’ foosball table after discovering the truth about the "Josh Evans" MySpace profile constructed by Lori Drew. The Meiers had been storing the item for the Drews.

Megan’s hometown, Dardenne Prairie, MO, recently passed what is being called the nation’s first "cyberbullying" law.

I want to be clear: I have no problem punishing people who harass others online. I think there is a point when taunting and teen-attitude go too far and become harassment in a legal sense. However, that said, I am inclined to agree with Search Engine (new window)‘s host– there is very a fine line between teens harassing each other in a truly destructive way, and the more innocent behavior of "kids being kids."

Middle school and high school are tough places. Kids are mean. Teenage girls are meaner. Kids need an outlet from the frustration, anger, and alienation they often feel. What kids used to write in journals or sketchbooks is now on the Internet. Perhaps the problem is that we aren’t teaching kids that the Internet is a profoundly public place. Just because you can’t see your audience, doesn’t mean nobody sees your content. That "I Hate Ashley" website that was funny on Saturday night has a life beyond the hour it took to create.

In addition to giving children and teens a potential space to vent frustration or anxiety, the internet can bring ostracized teens together forming supportive communities. The classic example is a gay teen in a rural area who finds an online community that supports him and can give him the tools to interact in his current environment.

The Internet has many positive social aspects for children and teens such as communities that form around music, crafting, books, etc. There is also a great deal of helpful advice for kids in trouble, resources for depression, and a variety for forums where people can assume other identities as coping strategies or (positive) escapism.

"Search Engine" concludes with a statistic that we ought to all keep in mind as we talk about these issues. As internet use increased in Canada, the teen suicide rate decreased. Although they are not necessarily correlated, it doesn’t appear that Internet use, which is disproportionately made up of younger users, causes more suicidal ideation or behavior. So lets just all calm down a little.

I don’t think it was the Internet or MySpace that made Megan Meier kill herself. Sadly, I think it was ordinary human cruelty that pushed her to go through with the act. The Internet just offers us other ways to express it.

Here is an interesting Wired News (new window) story about the cyber vigilantes who used the Internet to take revenge on Lori Drew.