When UNC Alumnus Joe Mundell logged into his Twitter account, the last thing he wanted to see was a two-hour “flame war” between two UNC alumni, targeting an unnamed UNC student with homophobic epithets and slurs. Mundell, who identifies as gay, admits that while none were directed at him, they were posted on a public forum for him–and everyone else– to see.
According to Mundell, the Tweeters were relentless in their assault, posting messages that attacked the student’s sexuality, inviting him to hook up with a choir director, audition for a musical and get an AIDS test.
They also threatened violence.
After this September’s tragedy at Rutgers University, in which student Tyler Clementi committed suicide after his roommate allegedly posted a video of him having sex with another man, the issue of cyberbullying has come to before the American public consciousness. The issue has become of particular interest to college and school administrators, who along with state and federal lawmakers are beginning to regard the trend with increasing alarm.
The problem, says Valerie Huttle, a NJ state representative, is not that cyberbullying is a new or suddenly-urgent phenomenon, but the fact that unlike traditional bullying, cyber-bullying offers little hope of refuge and respite, “bullying has been around through the ages on the school ground, but you go home and you feel safe,” she pointed out. “[but] cyberbullying is in a world beyond school grounds,” where it is able to reach hundreds of people, even in the relative safety of their homes and dorm rooms.
But the effects of cyber-bullying have far-reaching implications, affecting even those not directly targeted by verbal assaults. “I was having issues reading those,” said Mundell. “His Tweets are not private and they’re there for the whole world to see.” Mundell went on to explain that the incident triggered painful memories of his own experiences after coming out his sophomore year of high school. The difference, he said, was that this was before social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter had become widespread.
Previously, simple off-color humor or poorly-thought-out comments were fleeting, and restricted to person-to-person dialogue. With social media, however, tasteless comments and hateful diatribes are immediately posted publicly, where they remain on the web for the long term. Furthermore, widespread social media now allows bullies and abusers to make pervasive and public ridicule, and coercive threats thereof, with both impunity and convenience.
That’s why Rep. Huttle and other New Jersey lawmakers helped pass the Anti-Bullying Bill of Rights, a state bill designed to address cyberbullying in the K-12 system. Federal lawmakers have quickly followed suit, and days later introduced a similar bill, the “Tyler Clementi Higher Education Anti-Harrassment Act of 2010” to the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives. As inspiring as the federal and state initiatives are, however, even the bills’ sponsors admit their efforts are not aimed at eliminating bullying completely. “No one believes you’re going to stop bullying — you can’t outlaw hate and teasing,” said Michael Lieberman, the Washington counsel for the Anti-Defamation League, one of the several groups supporting the Tyler Clementi bill, “what you can say is that there are standards and there is accountability once you go outside these standards.”
The rise in bullying is one reason that FVPC community education volunteers facilitate Start Strong in the middle schools in Chapel Hill and Carrboro. One goal is to teach young people to be conscious about how their online comments can be perceived, and the real-life consequences of things said and done in the virtual world. To learn more about cyber-bullying and how you can help, visit our website at www.fvpcoc.org.