Tragedy struck in Williamsville, N.Y. on Sunday, Sept. 18 when 14-year-old Jamey Rodemeyer committed suicide in what his parents say was a reaction to constant bullying. The majority of the bullying revolved around his struggles with his sexuality, and a large chunk of it occurred on social networking sites.
This incident is only one in a multitude of suicides that have resulted from cyberbullying. The first cyberbullying trial held in the U.S. occurred in 2008 as a result of the death of 13-year-old Megan Meier, who killed herself after her neighbor Lori Drew tormented her online.
In some of the most recent developments in the fight against cyberbullying, New York state Sen. Jeffrey Klein proposed new legislation to update the state’s laws concerning harassment on Monday, Sept. 26. These proposals include suggestions to classify cyberbullying as third-degree stalking (a class A misdemeanor) and define “bullycide” — when an individual commits suicide due to online bullying — as second-degree manslaughter, which is a class C felony.
Despite this, many teenagers and young adults still don’t view digital abuse as a serious topic. From Aug. 18 to 31, the Associated Press and MTV conducted a poll with 1,355 people ranging in age from 14 to 24 through online interviews as a portion of “A Thin Line,” MTV’s campaign to eradicate digital harassment. According to the poll, 54 percent of young people believe that using discriminatory words is fine within their circle of friends. Two-thirds of those surveyed said that they thought discriminatory words written about blacks are supposed to be jokes, and 75 percent said the same of comments about women.
In order to guard against inflammatory comments, UR’s acceptable use policy states that individuals on University networks must not “use email, social networking sites or tools, or messaging services in violation of laws or regulations or to harass or intimidate another person.”
Students are given copies of the acceptable use policy, and education is promoted through security awareness programs and messages sent out through the Weekly Buzz and other newsletters.
The University also follows six communal principles — fairness, freedom, honesty, inclusion, responsibility and respect — which encourage a communal and participatory college environment. The focus of this academic year is respect.
Despite these policies, the University does not actively search for instances of harassment online. Associate Dean of Students Anne-Marie Algier explained that students have the ability to alert Security or the Office of the Dean of Students about any such situations, and then conversations can begin to figure out any further steps that should be taken depending on the level and severity of the incident.
One of the important, albeit difficult, tasks in enforcing these policies is reaching the major target audience — students — a notoriously tricky group to connect with.
“You can’t over educate, but I can’t force people to read things either,” Chief Information Security Officer Julie Myers said.
But does limiting what people can say online limit some of the basic purposes of the Internet?
“Once you start imposing rules, those rules and the people who enforce them can manipulate [them] to their own advantage, and you can spiral down into something that’s … not free anymore,” sophomore Nikolay Avramov said. He maintained that the Internet should essentially be a free domain.
In a campaign called “Tolerance Isn’t Enough,” which focused partly on bullying and cyberbullying last year, former SA President and senior Scott Strenger took a more cautious view, upholding the message that care should be taken with regard to online interaction. The campaign presently has 550 supporters, although the most recent member joined 8 months ago.
“To slander through a veil of anonymity violates the standards of respect that we as civil individuals must uphold,” Strenger said in a post on the SA website. “What we may consider to be playful comments can be hurtful.”
SA President and senior Bradley Halpern noted that although the SA does not plan to continue this campaign, they may consider something similar “depending upon the atmosphere on campus.”
These suggestions, it seems, are called for, especially in light of cases like Rodemeyer’s.
“[Students] don’t really know the mental state of the student on the other side or the individual on the other side, and I think that’s a really important consideration,” Myers said.
Ph.D. student Banu Kandemir did not feel as cautious. “Nobody should feel offended, nobody should take it seriously,” she said, commenting on the fact that many people simply do not take relationships on the Internet as seriously as they do in real life.
Some students maintained that they do not act any differently online than they do in face-to-face interactions. “There’s no sense in acting any differently online than you would in person,” senior Laryssa Hebert said. “I feel that sometimes when people do that it’s kind of immature, and it can be kind of wasteful and not productive.”
Others believed that because of the different natures of communicating in reality and in an online sphere, there may be more of a sense of freedom online. “I try not to insult anyone, but if I think someone’s making an invalid argment of some kind or saying something that’s wrong, I’ll go ahead and point that out, probably more readily than I would do in the real world,” Avramov said.
And yet the question still remains — why? Why might people view cyberbullying as just joking when there are situations in which the recipient is offended?
“We think of [the Internet] as a certain private sphere, even though it has, in effect, become a really public exchange of personalities,” senior Libby Stengel said. Sophomore Joe Tocha also expressed a feeling of disconnect. “There’s a barrier between you and the other person through the computer system,” he said.
Algier thought that it may be a matter of perspective — perhaps if someone has not been on the other side of the bullying, then they will not understand how it feels. This is not to say that UR has multitudes of problems with cyberbullying. However, Algier said that UR is not perfect, and we should be aware of potential issues and work on discussing them. “It’s learning about each other, about difference and what it might be like to experience what some else does,” she said.
Goldin is a member of the class of 2013.