As reported by Reid Epstein in Newsday, a New York teenager has sued Facebook. Of course there will be a lot of furor over whether Facebook is liable for its content in this case. But, I want to focus on two related areas that I think are more important in the long run than any merits in this specific cyber bullying lawsuit.
The first area that I think is more important in the long run is the ongoing effort to make new laws in response to new crimes, especially using new technology. The natural way that we make new laws begins when some people commit acts not specifically covered under the old laws that have terrible consequences. We respond by specifically labeling those new actions as crimes, and attach what we feel are appropriate criminal penalties. Then we see, by trial-and-error, where to draw better lines. The legal system is inevitably slow, inefficient and never perfect.
Given the increasing number of lives ruined by cyber bullying, emotional harassment and abuse, especially in schools, and the number of suicides stimulated by cyber bullying, I think that our society will make laws specifically stating that false and malicious statements and postings, in addition to pornography, are illegal. I don't think we'll hold carriers like Facebook, MySpace, etc. liable for their postings. But I think we'll hold them liable for ignoring complaints about specific chat groups and postings that they continue to carry.
Many states and school districts, including Kansas, Oregon and California are considering such laws to protect children and teenagers from cyber bullying.
One stumbling block in making such laws is where to draw the lines and the hidden assumption that cyberbullying laws can and should be made "just right" for all situations - never too lax, never too harsh. But the letter of the laws can never cover all situations with "just right" justice. We always depend on human wisdom in the law's application to specific situations. That's just the way it is - for better or for worse.
And I think that in this area, safety should triumph over cyber freedom.
The second area that I think is more important in the long run is parenting for the specific situations involving our kids and teenagers. Our job is to monitor our children:
1. Do they look like they're having a hard time (maybe being attacked by cyberbullies)? How can we help them stop bullying on their own or do we need to intervene?
2. Are they witnessing cyber bullying and are they struggling to know whether or how to intervene?
3. Are they cyber bullies? How do we stop them and help them develop the character to make amends and do better next time?
4. Should they even be on MySpace or Facebook or any social networking sites? What else would be a better use of their time and energy?
And of course there are no easy answers. No one is really dumb enough to think there are easy solutions.
There are no safe environments. Schools and the real world have never been safe. Schools and social networks are testing grounds for the real world. And the real world is not and should not be safe. Facing risks and danger helps us develop good sense, good character and the qualities necessary to survive. Imagine growing up on a farm, in a wilderness village or in the middle ages. Not safe. I grew up in New York City. Not safe. Millennia ago we had to learn what a saber-toothed tiger's foot prints looked like and how long ago they were left. The world still requires survival skills, even if different ones.
Our job as parents is to teach our children the skills and grit to survive in whichever jungle or battleground they live, and to protect them when they're over-matched.