Few school administrators have ventured as deep into the Neverland of teen social media as Charlip, who published a primer on teen texting on Albany High's website two years ago.

"We are living in one of those rare moments in time where the young have more knowledge around technology than adults and we depend on them for some basic needs like no generation before us," she wrote. "For example, if you see your child's cell phone or Facebook page saying LMIRL ("let's meet in real life"), it might be time to start asking some questions."

For parents who might feel addled by the wide reach and voluminousness of the new technology, trying to keep up is a bit like playing whack-a-mole. "There's no way for them to keep up," University of Wisconsin professor and cyber-bullying expert Justin Patchin says. Most kids are early technology adopters, he explains. And they're also adept at not being seen.

Students at Buena Vista Horace Mann don skirts for Sasha Fleischman.
Rachel Swan
Students at Buena Vista Horace Mann don skirts for Sasha Fleischman.
Lawrence and Sheila Pott remember their daughter.
Rachel Swan
Lawrence and Sheila Pott remember their daughter.

That puts school administrators in an awkward position when they're still responsible for students' safety. It also makes them vulnerable to lawsuits, should they receive a harassment complaint and ignore it — not out of indifference, but because they don't have the resources to keep up, Patchin says.

But that doesn't mean they should be hiring tech companies to do Orwellian-style surveillance, Santa Clara University law professor Goldman says. Deeming the Geo Listening contract a sinkhole for money, he questions schools' eagerness to police kids online, especially in light of a law that has yet to be tested in court.

"Sure, there are some things kids say online that are so unforgivable that they have to be punished," Goldman says. "But most of the things kids do or say online are just teachable moments. I'm baffled that, over and over again, administrators take a teachable moment and turn it into cause for discipline."

Porter says she's not surprised that so much trust has eroded between adults and kids. To her, this new law — and the surveillance policies that cropped up around it — are just a logical extension of the "inflammatory way" that we talk about child aggression. "I talked to a school principal the other day, and he had a parent in his office who wanted to sue a second-grade girl for harassment against his child," she says. "When you're living in a state that settles everything through legislation and lawsuits, then it becomes the way we parent our children."

In essence, Porter says, we're delegating the job of parenting to the courts.


And the courts can't be relied on
to redress the most extreme cyber-bullying cases anyway, including the ones that Assemblywoman Garcia's bill intended to fix. Stories like the suicide of Audrie Pott are so jarring that they tend to dominate our discourse about cyber-bullying. It's easy to forget how rare they are — to conflate a few isolated, tragic incidents and think they denote a trend.

This past September, journalists began publishing the online chats and text messages that Audrie Pott received shortly after she was sexually assaulted at a party in September 2012 and photographed by a group of boys she'd known since middle school. The boys drew all over Pott's body while she lay, drunk and unconscious, in the upstairs bedroom of a friend's house.

The next day, Pott woke up in a strange bed, saw her graffitied body, and couldn't remember what happened to her. She spent the next few days trying to retrace the night's events, and suppress the photos before they went viral on Facebook. Within a week, she'd endured the Internet equivalent of being shamed in a public square — a kind of high school smear campaign that quickly got out of control. In their court complaint, the Potts contended that the only way for their daughter to escape such extreme humiliation was to take her own life.

"Audrie was not the first teenager to endure such atrocities and shame, and thereon take her own life," they wrote in the court complaint. "Short of laws designed to protect our children from such circumstances, including bullying on our school campuses, Audrie may not be the last."

Indeed, several other high-profile teen cyber-bully cases have created similar media storms in the last few years, many of them with a similar narrative arc. In September, Florida 14-year-old Rebecca Sedwick was found in an abandoned concrete plant, where she'd apparently jumped to her death. She'd suffered jeering messages from a former classmate over a boy that both of them had dated. When news spread about Sedwick's suicide, the tormenter allegedly posted a Facebook status update that led to her arrest: "Yes IK I bullied Rebecca nd she killed her self but IDGAF ['I don't give a fuck.']." The suspect, Guadalupe Shaw, was ultimately released for lack of evidence.

In April, a San Jose woman, Amanda Brownell, decided to go off life support for injuries she suffered four years ago after trying to hang herself in the school restroom at Del Mar High School. Brownell's parents believe she was a victim of derisive text messages, but they have no clear proof — by the time she attempted suicide, Brownell, then a high school sophomore, had deleted the offensive trail from her cellphone.

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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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