Though these cases generate lurid headlines, and though they seem to reveal volumes about teen cruelty, Patchin and other experts maintain that they're outliers. He and his colleague, Sameer Hinduja, have conducted nine longitudinal studies over the past eight years to assess the cyber-bully epidemic, and their conclusions debunk some of the conventional wisdom about teen behavior on the Internet. Of the nearly 15,000 middle and high school students they surveyed, about 24 percent said they'd been cyber-bullied at some point in their lives. That's one-in-four, which demonstrates that bullying is common among teens — and, in fact, always has been. But it also means that only a minuscule percentage of those cases led to suicide.

Certainly, everybody wants to prevent that 24 percent of bullying cases, but the challenge is to do it without infringing on the rights of the 100 percent. The trend of monitoring and legal oversight suggests that parents and legislators have become so fixated on the marginal instances in which bullying leads to tragedy that they've forgotten to protect the whole.

To Porter, of Branson School, it's dangerous when an atypical story is made typical. Or when politicians use these emotionally wrenching, outlier cases to draft laws that affect the general teenage population.

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.

"We're basically trying to legislate against any kid ever killing themselves again," she says, "and that won't work." Rather than eradicate the extreme cases, the new law will likely just provoke a "heightened, overzealous" irrational response to non-extreme cases — like a pair of 12-year-old girls exchanging spiteful text messages. "And we all know 12-year-old girls say shitty things to each other all the time," Porter says. She points out that it would also be difficult to ascribe guilt in the case of a text message spat in which both girls were instigators.

Writing about the Bitch League scandal for Albany High's school newspaper, The Cougar, Trumbull argued that Twitter provides proof of sentiments that have existed for generations. "By broadcasting misogynistic jokes amongst friends to the world, Twitter provides the mixed blessing of making sexism visible," she wrote.

"Honestly, I think high school students are the same as they've ever been," Trumbull, now a freshman at UC Davis, says a year after her social media editorial was published. "What's scaring people is seeing letter by letter what kids are writing."


For all the drama it's seen over the past year, Albany High hasn't rushed to implement a new cyber-bullying policy, or install surveillance cameras in its locker rooms and cafeterias.

Like their counterparts in San Francisco, Albany administrators still see a "teachable moment" in every scandal: a school, after all, is a place where kids learn to tolerate one another. It's a place where adults inculcate societal values — but many educators believe that paranoia, suspicion, litigious impulses, and a willingness to be monitored or controlled shouldn't be among them.

That said, Charlip acknowledges that the new cyber-bully law could have been somewhat enabling, if she'd had it at her disposal during the sex-league scandal. She's just not exactly sure how she would have deployed it.

"There are many cases in which this kind of law unshackles the hands of administrators," she says. "But on the other hand, it shouldn't be up to administrators to investigate into a kid's home life ... and it isn't the school's job to regulate the drama that constantly ensues from kids' dynamics." During her tenure at Albany High, she says, students would often come into the office brandishing screenshots of snarky tweets or Facebook posts — full documentation of a friendship gone wrong.

"I have hundreds of pages of this kind of drivel," she says, adding that ultimately, she was unable to solve every spat or prank or sexist comment or relationship problem — it's a kid's responsibility to manage his own behavior online.

She and other educators see inherent flaws in the law, despite its utility. It's too broad and overreaching, and it puts an undue burden on schools to answer every complaint, or divert resources toward every investigation, when those resources are scant to begin with. Moreover, Charlip says, it leans on traditional disciplinary measures like suspensions and expulsion, which are a poor way to handle a cyber-bully.

"Suspension — that's the worst kind of isolation, ever," Charlip says. "Because what do you think the kid is gonna do all day when his parents are at work?"

The answer seems obvious: Go on the Internet.

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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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