- 2012 - September - 3rd -

Itís not just the lunch money these days

by The Jacksonville Bar Association President Ray Driver

Megan Meier. Amanda Cummings. Alexis Pilkington. Ryan Halligan. Phebe Prince. Seth Walsh. Asher Brown. Billy Lucas. Tyler Clementi. Justin Aaberg. Zach Harrington. Grace McComas. Megan Gillan.

What is the common link between all of those individuals? They are all children who committed suicide as a result of cyber-bullying.

Think about that for a minute. And then think about the children who are victims that donít commit suicide, but are negatively impacted by depression, loss of confidence, bad grades and damage to relationships with parents and teachers.

Frankly, it makes me sick to think about it.

With four kids, I donít need something else to worry about. I already have the typical things on the list: going through the teenage years, seeing them behind the wheel of a car for the first time, first dates, first broken hearts, paying for three weddings (yes, one is a boy and I hope to get off light with a rehearsal dinner), etc. Now, I have to worry about cyber-bullying. Seriously?

Donít think for a second that your son or daughter, grandson or granddaughter, or nephew or niece canít be a victim. And, donít think for a second that they canít be one of the bullies.

See, bullying is not what it once was. Bullying took place on a school campus or at the bus stop. It was the proverbial bigger kid beating up the smaller kid and taking his lunch money. It was one on one, and it generally stopped there.

Everyone hated bullies. Well, the electronic age has changed the dynamics. Now, bullying happens via screen names and handles. It happens in childrenís bedrooms, at the kitchen table and on the couch while the television is on. It doesnít matter if the child is big or small, or a girl or a boy, because there is no physical confrontation. Any child can be a victim, and any child can be an instigator or an accomplice. Welcome to the world of cyber-bullying Ö and itís a dangerous world.

What is cyber-bullying? Basically, it is the use of technology to control, humiliate, intimidate, manipulate or otherwise harm or threaten another person.

Technology uses include email, texting and chat rooms. The actions generally are deliberate, hostile and repeated.

All of that is troubling, but thatís not what makes it so dangerous. Itís how fast it can spread, and how many people easily can gang up on a child.

For instance, a Facebook post spreads a false rumor about a girl cheating on a test. The posterís friends ďlikeĒ the page and jump on board with comments. Her teacher hears the rumor in the hall and calls her parents. The parents question their daughter and she takes that to mean that they think itís true, which in turn fractures the relationship between the parents and the child. All of that can happen in the blink of an eye.

Most children generally donít think about (or at least appreciate) the consequences of a post like that. Heck, Iím not sure most adults think about, or appreciate, the consequences. Our world moves so fast through technology, and our children are so dadgum smart, that I think we frequently forget how fragile and innocent our children are.

Well, we need to start remembering, because the negative impact of cyber-bullying is growing rapidly.

State legislatures are reacting by adopting laws designed to protect children against it. For example, the state of Florida passed the ďJeffrey Johnston Stand Up for All Students ActĒ in 2008. The law is named after Jeffrey Johnston, a 15-year-old boy who committed suicide after being the object of cyber-bullying for two years. The law prohibits bullying and harassment (i) in Floridaís K-12 public educational institutions, (ii) in any educational program or activity conducted by an educational institution, or (iii) through the use of data or software accessed by a computer, computer system or computer network of a K-12 public educational institution. It goes on to mandate that each school district adopt a code of conduct against bullying and harassment. Unfortunately, it doesnít go far enough and too many questions are left unanswered. What are the consequences if the school district does not adopt the code of conduct, or what if the code is not strong enough? What happens if the bullying is done from a home computer? What about private schools? And so on, and so on.

The bottom line is that we canít rely on statutes to protect our children. We have to get involved ourselves. We need to understand the technology, and talk to our children about it. We need to educate our children on how to protect themselves from cyber-bullying. We need to know how to recognize the signs of a victim, and we need to make sure our children understand the consequences of being the instigator or an accomplice.

Look, this stuff is complicated and the technology can sometimes be intimidating. Regardless, there is too much at stake and itís too late once it happens. No one can bring any of the children listed at the top of this page back, but we certainly can work together to make sure the list doesnít get any longer.

The Bar is open! Come make a difference!

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