Virtual Burn Books: A Symbol of Today’s Growing Cyberbullying Problem
Most of us remember Regina’s high school Burn Book from the iconic 2004 movie “Mean Girls,” which featured anonymously written malicious gossip about various student characters of the film. I could never have imagined that seven years later when checking up on my Facebook newsfeed, I would find that Regina’s Burn Book had become an online reality. An anonymous high school student from my alma mater had created a fake persona under a name resembling “TrabucoHills BurnBook,” where students (or anyone) could “friend” this account, send it private messages of vexatious or demeaning comments about a certain student, and the BurnBook account would post the private message on it’s page as a “status update,” encouraging people to comment and discuss. As I explored the various status updates and comments, I was stunned to read that most of the students were amused that someone had come up with this ingenious way to malign their fellow students with seemingly no consequences. The rare students who would pipe up and voice their criticism of the page were met with a slew of comments from the BurnBook, claiming that what the BurnBook was doing was completely fine as everything was being posted anonymously, with the defense that this was not bullying.
Indeed, with the advent of technology, bullying has reached a new level. Cyberbullying is defined as “willful and repeated harm inflicted through the use of computers, cell phones, and other electronic devices.”[i] With the vastness of the Internet and unrestricted access by an infinite audience, the power imbalance inherent in bullying has only been exacerbated. Much of cyberbullying has taken place in the social networking forums of cyberspace, including Facebook and YouTube, and has also taken effect through malicious text messages and emails.[ii] The estimated victims of cyberbullying vary from 10-40% of American youth.[iii] Cyberbullying has resulted in many detrimental effects on the young victims’ wellbeing, including fostering depression, low self-esteem, academic problems, and in the most tragic cases, suicide.[iv] Currently, while forty-nine out of the fifty US states have anti-bullying laws, only eighteen states have laws targeting cyberbullying, with no federal law addressing either bullying or cyberbullying on the books just yet.[v] Part of the lack of statutory law on cyberbullying stems from the difficulty in defining what exactly constitutes cyberbullying, as the realm is so new.
But perhaps the US can take guidance from Canada, where McGill University Professor Shaheen Shariff, an eminent scholar and global leader against cyberbullying, has created http://definetheline.ca/dtl – Define the Line – a website designed to “clarif[y] the blurred lines between cyberbullying and digital citizenship.”[vi] Specifically, Professor Shariff created this website as a tool to tackle cyberbullying by “exposing and analyzing” it and “encouraging dialogue.”[vii] The site highlights relevant information on cyberbullying, including what it entails, the legal implications in North America, and even policy concerns and strategies that parents and educators can make to educate kids on the consequences of cyberbullying. It is this kind of open discourse and attention to the problem that will serve as a stepping stone developing practical law that will address cyberbulling here in the States.
[i] Sameer Hinduja & Justin W. Patchin, Cyberbullying Identification, Prevention, and Response, Cyberbullying Research Center, http://www.cyberbullying.us/Cyberbullying_Identification_Prevention_Response_Fact_Sheet.pdf.
[v] State Cyberbullying Laws: A Brief Review of State Cyberbullying Laws and Policies, Cyberbullying Research Center, http://www.cyberbullying.us/Bullying_and_Cyberbullying_Laws.pdf.
[vii] McGill University, Cyberbullying – Helping Parents and Kids Define the Line, YouTube (May 20, 2011), http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rALek3hI_0s.