Lawmakers and Internet executives are perking up to the growing problem of kid bully fights on the Web.
Legislators are newly arming themselves with laws that will protect kids from being repeatedly harassed via the Internet, text messages, or other electronic devices. In recent weeks, Rep. Linda Sanchez (D-Calif.) and Rep. Kenny Hulshof (R-Mo.) proposed a federal law that would criminalize acts of so-called cyberbullying (PDF). And Missouri Gov. Matt Blunt was scheduled Friday to sign into state law a similar measure, but the event was postponed because of inclement weather in St. Louis.
Both state and federal laws were prompted by the suicide of Missouri 13-year-old Megan Meier, who was the victim of repeated harassment on MySpace.com. An adult neighbor was indicted in the case last month by a grand jury in Los Angeles not on charges of cyberbullying, but on charges of unauthorized access of a computer system with intent to harm another person. (Missouri litigators said they didn't have a law to prosecute the case at the time.)
The case has raised national awareness around the issue of cyberbullying.
"When you see adults preying on kids, we're learning how significant the risks are," said Parry Aftab, an attorney and founder of the nonprofit advocacy group Wired Safety.
Parents, teens, teachers, and Internet executives also came together this week to hash out issues of digital fights at Wired Safety's International Stop Cyberbullying Conference, a two-day gathering in White Plains, N.Y., and New York City. Executives from Facebook, Verizon, MySpace, Microsoft, and many others talked with hundreds of teens and parents about how to better protect kids online from harassment.
In general, the conversation among these groups is moving from a focus solely on sexual predators to the everyday harm that kids can inflict on each other in chat rooms, social networks, virtual worlds, or via text message. Researchers say that anywhere from 40 percent to 85 percent of kids have been exposed to some kind of digital bullying, whether it's a stolen password or being called "fat" via instant message.
Even in adult-monitored virtual worlds for kids, children have been known to get around dictionary controls by naming a virtual room after a peer that he or she wants to ridicule, e.g., "Mary is fat." And while calling someone "fat" is not a crime, parents and legislators are trying to prevent the behavior before it leads to tragedies like Meier's.
"It used to be that adults would pooh-pooh bullying as a phase, but we're seeing increasing violent actions resulting from it," Sanchez said in an interview.
"The problem with cyberbullying is that kids aren't even safe in their own home, because they're being harassed through the computer or cell phones 24/7 potentially," she said.
Lawmakers are seeking to address cyberbullying with new legislation because there's currently no specific law on the books that deals with it. A fairly new federal cyberstalking law might address such acts, according to Aftab, but no one has been prosecuted under it yet. The proposed federal law would make it illegal to use electronic means to "coerce, intimidate, harass or cause other substantial emotional distress."
When signed, the Missouri state law will update existing regulations on harassment and stalking to include instances of those acts over the Internet, text message, or other electronic device. It will make cyberbullying punishable by up to four years in jail.
This week at an Internet conference, Scott Arpajan, founder of kids' virtual world Dizzywood, backed up this notion. He said that more than sexual predators, the company needs to watch out for cyberbullying in its growing community of 8 to 14 year olds. Dizzywood hires outside moderators to keep an eye on interactions among children.
"The biggest thing is keeping kids from getting in fights," Arpajan said.
Middle-school kids and teens said this week that they want more technology and response from adults and Internet companies when it comes to these issues, according to Aftab. At the conference, which hosted as many as 200 teens, kids said they want to be able to report instances of cyberbullying online and not have them "go into a black hole." Teens also said that they want Web sites to write easy-to-understand terms of service and privacy policies. That could mean creating policies that are animated or graphical.
To the consumer electronics industry: The teens also said they want new and better tools to stop harassment on cell phones. That would include buddy lists that block anyone besides approved senders from reaching their text message in-box.
As for the industry, more groups are creating Internet safety programs for K-12 kids that address bullying. Microsoft, for example, is sponsoring the Anti-Defamation League's program to train teachers, students, and parents on how to stop cyberbullying. Google also recently sponsored an Internet safety guide from Common Sense Media.
Sites like MyYearBook and Facebook have hosted pages that call on teens to pledge against cyberfighting, in honor of Meier. Wired Safety's group of teen Internet safety volunteers put a page on MyYearBook and there's a similar page on Facebook.
Tina Meier, the mother of Megan, said that change has to start with the kids, but parents need to talk more to their children. "The biggest thing I tell parents is to communicate and know what's going on with their child. They have to know what apps they're using and be on those sites," Meier said.