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Effective Responses to Cyberbullying

ADL Statement to the U.S. House of Representatives

Subcommittees on Early Childhood, Elementary and Secondary Education and Healthy Families and Communities

July 8, 2009


Posted: July 9, 2009

July 8, 2009 -- The Anti-Defamation League is pleased to provide testimony to the House Subcommittees on Early Childhood, Elementary and Secondary Education and Healthy Families and Communities concerning the importance of giving a fresh, comprehensive and thorough look at the issue of bullying and harassment among our students.  As our children¡¦s worlds increasingly rely on a modern medium of communication, our strategies on effective safeguards for safety must be modernized and reviewed afresh as well.

The Anti-Defamation League is a nearly 100-year old human relations and civil rights organization that has committed itself to the fight against anti-Semitism, bigotry and hate of all kinds.  As part of fulfilling that mission, the League has undertaken to combat hatred by building tolerance and understanding in communities, from the ground up.  Through the years, the League has been a leading provider of anti-bias education and diversity training programs that help create and sustain inclusive home, school, community and work environments. 

Bullying among our children can be motivated by prejudice and hate, and some of the most serious cases of bullying are the result of bias based on the target's race, religion, national origin, sexual orientation and the like. Whether bullying is related to identity-based group membership, however, or more universal characteristics such as appearance or social status, social cruelty can produce devastating consequences for the targets and may be a precursor to more destructive behavior, including involvement in hate groups and bias-related violence.

 For this reason, ADL has committed itself to joining the national efforts to understand and combat harassment of all kinds, including bullying through electronic means and other kinds of hatred that can touch our children.   

Cyberbullying and Cyberhate:  Same dangers, different medium, different effect

Most young people today consider e-mailing, text messaging, chatting and blogging a vital means of self-expression and a central part of their social lives.  While the internet brings substantial value to our youth, both socially and educationally, it can also bring trouble.   An increasing number of youth are misusing online technology to bully, harass and even incite violence against others.   And as opposed to traditional "school-yard" bullying, bullying through modern communication technology can be more pervasive and invasive in nature:  electronic messages can be circulated far and wide in an instant, and are usually irrevocable; cyberbullying is ubiquitous, home is not a refuge since the computer is there and it can be felt 24 hours a day.  Further, cyberbullying is often anonymous and can rapidly swell as countless and unknown others join in on "the fun" without feeling empathy for the target.

Besides peer-to-peer bullying, we must be aware that our students are reached by another type of hate that is pervading their virtual world.  Bigots, hatemongers and even extremists use the internet to gather supporters to their greater mission of promoting xenophobia and hatred for ¡§the other.¡¨  They do, in fact, reach out to our youth, and may be deceptive about it:

  • A student conducting a Google search on Martin Luther King, Jr. for a school project will probably find the website martinlutherking.org.  This appears to be an educational site but is actually a website that spreads hateful racist messages.  
  • Students looking for fun video games to play online may come across a game in which the players shoot at illegal immigrants crossing over the Mexico-U.S. border.  The game portrays stereotypes of Mexicans as drug smugglers and pregnant women with many children.
  • A student could be on youtube.com looking at the music video of a singer who happens to be Jewish, and come across anti-Semitic comments posted below. 

Strategies for Stemming Student Harassment in our Communities

Students, parents, teachers, administrators, law enforcement, religious leaders and all community members must be prepared to handle this not-so-old issue of bullying and harassment in this new age of technology.

Education and Training

It is no surprise that, in most cases, our children know more about the ways in which they can electronically communicate than their parents can even understand.  Despite the prevalence and impact of cyberbullying, many adults are unaware of the problem due to a lack of fluency in new technologies, limited involvement in and oversight of youth online activity, and strong social norms among youth against disclosure of online behavior.

Administrators, teachers, parents and law enforcement that relate to our students all need training on this issue.  It is often the schools who are ultimately involved in a bullying and/or cyberbullying issue.  Schools are where the targets and "perpetrators" convene.  Because of the technology gap, it is imperative that teachers and parents know about MySpace, Facebook, e-mails, and text-messages, and about how each of these is being used.  It is also imperative that communities know how to respond when an incident of bullying does arise.  There is a lot of misunderstanding about harassment, the right to free-speech on the Internet and when "kids will be kids" goes too far.

School policies
  
Schools must develop strong anti-bullying policies so that faculty, students and parents know exactly what is and what is not acceptable.  ADL has developed a model policy that would be comprehensive and effective.   A strong school anti-bullying policy should include a clear definition of "bullying" which includes bullying through electronic communication.  The policy should create specific avenues for students to report incidents of bullying.  The policy should require that explicit notice of both the definition of bullying and the lines for reporting the incidents be given to students and to parents.

Further, it is critical that a school anti-bullying policy explicitly highlight the inclusion of bullying that is motivated by a student's race, religion, national origin, gender, sexual orientation, disability or another identifiable characteristic.  Naming the categories will remove all doubt that Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender (LGBT) youth are included in the protections from bullying.  It also underscores that hatred based on bigotry and stereotypes affect communities in a unique way and will not be tolerated.

Finally, a policy should deal explicitly with the issue of off-campus bullying.  Courts across the country are currently analyzing when a school can discipline hate speech that is created on a computer at a student's home, but affects other students in the school building.  Drawing lines about discipline may be difficult and dicey here, but schools do have a responsibility to keep children safe and must know about all aspects of their student's lives.

The Industry

The Internet and Telecommunications industry can be an enormous ally in this conversation, and we encourage any discussions concerning solutions to the issue of bullying today to involve industry leaders. 

Web 2.0 providers are not arms of the government.  They are private corporations and are thus not bound by the First Amendment.  In fact, most providers on the Internet engage the consumer in a Terms of Service agreement which requires that any use of their service be free from offensive or hateful language. 

It is time for the Industry to hold itself accountable to these Terms of Service.  While it is impractical to think that each vendor can actually analyze every piece of data that is on their website, once they are notified of a situation, their actions should reflect the standards they have set for their users. 

Some in the industry are already taking this issue seriously.  For example, the YouTube Abuse & Safety Center features information and links to resources developed by ADL to help Internet users respond to and report offensive material and extremist content that violates YouTube's Community Guidelines on hate speech.


The Government

The government, on a federal, state and local level, has the responsibility to let communities know that this issue is a priority and will not be taken lightly.  The Anti-Defamation League's model anti-bullying statute helps address this responsibility.  The model law requires that school districts adopt comprehensive and effective anti-bullying policies, and involve all members in the community on its implementation. Further, it is crucial that school districts and communities are provided with resources to provide for the training and awareness programs mentioned above.

Individuals

ADL has long empowered bystanders to become allies in the fight against hate.

The same holds true online: fighting anti-Semitism and bigotry requires all of us to act decisively.

We can't outlaw all of it.  We can't stop all of it.  Bullying is an age-old problem.   But we can be educated about it.  We can know what it is that we're dealing with.  We can balance our right to free speech and our need for discourse with our critical mission to keep our children safe.

So, ADL asks all users of the internet to take a few proactive steps while they are communicating in the virtual world.  We ask that they:

  • Flag.  Many sites allow users to flag offensive content for review. 
  • Speak.  Post counter points-of-view that oppose the offensive point of view.
  • Think.  Perspective is crucial. Try to respond in a thoughtful, careful manner.
  • Applaud. Post positive comments on content that shares positive messages.  
  • Talk. Talk to friends, teachers, or family about what you've seen.
  • Know the community with which you are dealing.  Look for a site's Terms of Service and find out about the kind of site the company wants to run.

Conclusion

According to the Pew Internet & American Life Project, almost 90% of youth in the U.S. are online and 50% have a cell phone.  For the current generation of young people, e-mailing, IM-ing, text messaging, chatting and blogging are a vital means of self-expression and a central part of their social lives.  This new medium for communication is vast:  its possibilities are endless and exciting, but also can be dangerous if not dealt with responsibly.  It will take the part of the schools, the parents, the industry and the government to look together to this issue, to build awareness and raise our children in a safe cyber-community.  We applaud the Subcommittees for taking on this important issue as part of a national conversation.

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