"There's this question of bullying," Charlip says, "and how much they felt bullied or were bullying other people. And then there's the question of whether they were just doing the electronic version of what happened in the wood-paneled basement." Meaning teens were just as lascivious in previous generations, but they weren't broadcasting their lives.

"I mean, we did all those things," Charlip says, pausing to chew on the thought. "But nobody put it on a billboard on Route 9."

Those particular images of social media — as both a billboard and a wood-paneled basement — crop up over and over again when parents, school administrators, and legal experts try to describe its repercussions. Adults who grew up with rickety dial-up connections and AOL instant messenger often lament how noxious social media has become, and how much it's poisoned their kids' lives. Sure, they were just as bad, the logic goes. But they limited their mudslinging to bathroom graffiti or notes passed in class. Twitter, with its endless fire hose of teen blather, is far more potent.

"It's as though we've put all teenagers in a room together with megaphones, and left them unsupervised," Sue Porter, dean of students at the Branson School in Marin, says of social media. "And now we have to punish them for being loud."

In fact, policymakers are tweaking the education code to do just that. But their desire to shield teens from one another may interfere with students' First Amendment rights. While parents and legislators say they only want to create a safe world for children, legal experts say our protective zeal is now at loggerheads with our technology, and with normal teen behavior.

Bullying has always been around. What's changed is our reaction: Heightened media coverage of a few exceptional, tragic cases has created the illusion of a bullying epidemic, and lawmakers have responded by applying 21st-century principles of surveillance and legal control to teenagers — thus creating, in schools, a security state writ small.


At its most extreme, the social media megaphone isn't just obscene or obnoxious; it also has had grave consequences. Saratoga parents Lawrence and Sheila Pott say that social media provided the means for a group of high school bullies to torment their 15-year-old daughter, Audrie, who hanged herself last September. The Potts are waging a wrongful death suit that charges four of Audrie's peers for a battery of crimes, including invasion of privacy and negligent infliction of emotional distress. This year, the Potts also helped enact a state law that would allow schools to suspend or expel students for their behavior in cyberspace.

The law's author, Assemblywoman Cristina Garcia of Bell Gardens, says that it unties school administrators' hands when they're faced with a sex league-type scandal — or even a spate of text messages that spiral out of control. "The way the previous law was written, there had to be a nexus," Charlip says. "The bullying had to happen at school or on school property."

The new law extends that purview to all forms of electronic communication, even if they originate off-campus. A spokeswoman from Garcia's office described it as a "tool" to help administrators who previously felt powerless when students complained about online harassment from peers. "Before, teachers could say, 'My hands are tied,'" the spokeswoman explains. "Now they have a little more teeth."

But some teachers and administrators believe it's not their duty to legislate against child aggression, or intervene in conflicts that, in previous decades, would never have come to light. Porter believes it's an excuse to "criminalize children's behavior," often for momentary actions that spiral out of control. A kid might be culpable for any nasty text messages he writes, Porter says, but he's not responsible for the recipient who keeps looking at them and getting more and more upset. "Now, that 9-year-old can be expelled," she says.

And, judging from previous court cases about schools' authority over conduct off-campus, the law might not even be constitutional. David Greene, a staff attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, calls the law "hugely problematic" because it empowers school principals to decide that a certain type of speech doesn't deserve First Amendment protection.

"We're vesting principals — not judges — with this decision-making, which I don't think should be part of what they do," Greene says. He and Santa Clara University law professor Eric Goldman also predict that schools might see more lawsuits from parents who accuse the school of failing to adequately use the law to "protect" their children from online harassment.

But as a father of two San Francisco public school students, Greene admits that he's somewhat conflicted. For anyone horrified by Audrie Pott's suicide, or the Steubenville, Ohio, rape case — in which a group of high school football players allegedly assaulted a 16-year-old girl while friends filmed with their cellphones — the tension between cyber-bullying and First Amendment law might stir up complicated feelings.

"I should offer this disclaimer," Greene says. "I think cyber-bullying is a horrible, horrible thing, and I agree that it's a huge problem, and anything I say is in that light."

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7 comments
goodnbad
goodnbad

The only way to put a stop to the whole world watching everyone do everything, is to unplug!  The lid to Pandora's box has been blown off, if we want really want to put the genie back in the bottle, then we must break the bottle, too.

If you know the story about Eve taking a bite of the apple, than you know how the story ends.

John LaForgia
John LaForgia

"I'm sorry but your attacks on Porter are rather uncalled for. And might even be constructed as cyber-bullying, you even resorted to name-calling." Well, too bad for you. According to you Porter (and you), I can say whatever I want on the internet and it's not my fault if it makes you angry and I should not be held responsible for your feelings. Even though, in a fight on the schoolyard, every teachers first question would be "who started it?" Internet is just a bigger schoolyard. Now *that* is trolling.

John LaForgia
John LaForgia

A few high profile, isolated instances? Blowing it out of proportion? There shouldn't be any instances. Reach as far as they want. Damn well better be keeping my kids (and all others, even from them selves) safe any way they possible can during the time she's at school and, if it helps, even after school. None if this hiding behind free speech crap, either, when it comes to children's online time. Also, "A kid might be culpable for any nasty text messages he writes, Porter says, but he's not responsible for the recipient who keeps looking at them and getting more and more upset." Porter, you're an idiot.

makalatis
makalatis

I'm sorry but your attacks on Porter are rather uncalled for.

And might even be constructed as cyber-bullying, you even resorted to name-calling.


You can't shut children away from the internet. Well, you can. But you shouldn't.

It is one of the staples of our modern society and learning how to deal with it correctly is a critical life skill.

Am I condoning the writing of nasty text messages? No.

But it's no different than passing nasty notes in class, or harassing somebody by putting a hatefilled letter in their mailbox.


The separation between school and elsewhere gets muddled and this makes these forms of communication a tricky subject to handle for the schools, which Rachel Swan covered very nicely.


Your reaction comes across as a knee-jerk reflex to protect your children.

This is both logical and admirable, but it is misdirected.

Bullying is a terrible thing, but it is not endemic to social media or "digital communication" in general, and keeping your children away from this will only single them out.

jklaforgia
jklaforgia

"I'm sorry but your attacks on Porter are rather uncalled for.

And might even be constructed as cyber-bullying, you even resorted to name-calling.

"

Well, too bad for you. According to you Porter (and you), I can say whatever I want on the internet and it's not my fault if it makes you angry and I should not be held responsible for your feelings. Even though, in a fight on the schoolyard, every teachers first question would be "who started it?" Internet is just a bigger schoolyard.

Now *that* is trolling.

makalatis
makalatis

@jklaforgiaI did not post that to "win" this comment section, but rather to give some counter-weight to what was then the only comment on an article I agree with.


You actually raise a valid point though, the internet IS just a bigger school yard, but it's not affiliated with your children's school in any way, shape or form. Responsibility for proper conduct should therefore, as with almost any other time, lie with the child itself and its parents / guardians.

 
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