Cyberbullying: Where's the Line?

Oct 08, 2010

A week that began with media outlets examining how cyberbullying led to Rutgers freshman Tyler Clementi's suicide is ending with news of another Internet scandal. Duke graduate Karen Owen's fake thesis is a hot topic of discussion among bloggers, newspaper columnists and television analysts. Some wonder whether the salacious PowerPoint presentation is yet another example of cyberbullying.

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Karen Owen

A post earlier this week looked at the tragic death of Tyler Clementi, the Rutgers freshman who committed suicide after his sexual encounters were streamed online by roommate Dharun Ravi. Cyberbullying is a well-documented problem in the nation's middle and high schools and Clementi's death brought attention to the fact that students in college can also be targets of this abuse.

As the week ends, another instance of privacy invasion online is affecting college students. During her senior year at Duke University, Karen Owens assembled a summary of sexual encounters that included ratings of partners' features and performance. Written as a fake senior thesis, the PowerPoint document was intended for viewing by only three of Owens's friends. One of these people, however, forwarded the document, which ultimately reached millions.

Many in the media are now talking about how these incidents are related. Some are questioning whether they constitute cyberbullying, or if they are merely cases of youthful negligence. Cyberbullying, as defined by the Cyberbullying Research Center, is 'willful and repeated harm inflicted through the use of computers, cell phones and other electronic devices.' Do the actions of Ravi or Owens meet this threshold?

Karen Owen

Issues of legal culpability can be very murky when it comes to cyberbullying. There are no national laws on the books for the offense, and state cyberbullying laws and policies vary widely. Most states do have laws addressing bullying, but few of these statutes incorporate cyberbullying. And while many schools and other organizations have codes of conduct for online behavior, these policies are far from standardized. Even people intent on following the rules may not be clear on what they are.

It is likely because of this ambiguity that many people today are questioning what consequences Dharun Ravi and Karen Owens should face. Ravi, along with dorm mate Molly Wei, faces several privacy invasion charges, but it's unclear to what extent he might be held accountable for Clementi's suicide. Following a bullycide in South Hadley, Massachusetts earlier this year, seven teen girls were charged with criminal harassment, stalking and civil rights violations. These charges resulted from the group's harassment of 15-year-old Phoebe Prince, who hanged herself after months of malicious text messages and Facebook posts.

Karen Owen

High-profile incidents like those of the past week are likely to lead to broader legislation addressing cyberbullying and malicious online behavior. Until then, distinctions about what is and isn't okay online are likely to be elusive. What is clear is that students of all ages should report online harassment to school officials and legal authorities. While cyberbullying laws may not be in place in all states, local administrative offices often do have authority to stop and discipline against online harassment.

Another important reminder that students should take to heart: Be proactive about protecting your privacy online. While Karen Owens may not have intended her fake thesis to go beyond a few friends, sharing the document digitally with anyone created the possibility that it could easily be made available to millions online. Now it has, damaging her reputation along with that of more than a dozen others.

If you're not sure how to best protect yourself on Facebook, Twitter and other social media, check back next week for tips you can use to protect your online reputation.

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