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Teaching internet etiquette: dealing with cyberbullying.

Technological advances over the years have changed the way we live. Through the World Wide Web and cell phones, we now have the capability to instantaneously communicate with almost anyone in the world. A person can take a photo on his or her iPhone and upload it to Facebook in a matter of seconds. A homesick college student is able to Skype with family and friends back home.

Technology has provided many opportunities and conveniences. However, along with these benefits, it has also created new issues and problems. The traditional institutions of media accountability by themselves can no longer keep up with rising ethical issues of today's Twitter, Facebook world. Thus, the rules need to be updated and redefined.

"It is very much the Wild West out there" was the way one panelist described the new world of social media during a Liberty Tree conference held May 10, 2011 at Southern Illinois University Carbondale. How can traditional rules and standards be applied to new types of media? What can be done to deal with the issue of cyberbullying, and who even qualifies as a journalist? No easy answers exist for these difficult questions. However, it is important to delve deeper into these issues and investigate what the possible and best solutions are.

Cyberbullying refers to the use of social media and cell phones by young people to post or send text or images intended to hurt or embarrass other minors. It has become increasingly common in recent years, and concerns about its effects continue to grow. As a result, legislation and awareness campaigns are becoming more prevalent in an attempt to combat this problem.

From a legal perspective, it is difficult to determine who should be held responsible for instances of cyberbullying. In most cases, it has been found that websites are not legally responsible for third-party postings.

Specifically, Section 230 of the Communication Decency Act gives legal immunity to websites for third-party postings, with a few specific exceptions. Granting this immunity is reasonable, as it is virtually impossible for large networking websites to review every single posted comment or photo.

The 30 million postings each month on Craigslist alone exemplify this truth. However, something needs to be done to decrease the harm done by intentionally malicious and hurtful Internet posts.

The issue of freedom of speech arises when trying to control the problem of cyberbullying. How can hurtful online speech be controlled without infringing upon people's First Amendment rights? We have the obligation to protect speech that we hate. The traditional cases that have set standards for the types of speech that are not allowed are not immediately applicable to this new-age issue.

For example, it is not clear what an appropriate use of the "clear and present danger" test is when referring to a hateful Web post made by an anonymous poster or a violent message sent by someone who lives hundreds of miles from the intended victim.

While it is important and necessary to sort through the legal actions that can be taken to minimize cyberbullying and its harmful effects, promoting awareness of the issue and educating people is what will have immediate impact. Instead of spending so much time and effort deciding who is legally responsible for the posts and comments made on various sites and instead of creating stringent guidelines that limit people's online speech, we need to focus on spreading the word about what cyberbullying is, the impact it has on people's lives and how it can be prevented.

Providing "Internet etiquette" education in schools about how to use social networking sites in positive ways is a measure that should be taken. Adolescents too, often use these Web sites to spread nasty rumors, post mean comments or create drama. Through this education, students would be taught respectful approaches to technological communication as well as how to avoid being a victim of cyberbullying.

Students would be reminded that anything they post online can be read by anyone. They would be encouraged to remember the common courtesy that they have learned to show people in the real world and apply it to the cyber world. Parents, teachers and other adults need to stay informed about cyberbullying and focus on finding new ways to protect their children or students from becoming victims.

Providing adolescents with instruction on appropriate technological behavior would not only help prevent students from being bullied but also from becoming bullies themselves. Because texting and social network posting are such impersonal ways to communicate, many adolescents do not realize the negative impact their words can have on others.

Unlike traditional bullying where the bully witnesses the reaction of the other person, cyberbullies are physically removed from their victims, allowing them to avoid seeing the hurt caused by their words.

An educational tool that could be implemented to help students see the impact of electronic speech is cyberbullying role-playing. This would give students the opportunity to experience being both the bully and the victim. Many students may realize they are closer to being a bully than they ever imagined.

Educating students about real instances of cyberbullying is necessary as well. Being aware of tragic cases, such as the so-called MySpace suicide of Megan Meier in St. Charles, Mo., would help them realize the seriousness of the things they say on the Web and give them tools to avoid becoming instigators of cyberbullying.

The problem of cyberbullying won't be solved overnight, but as awareness spreads and teenagers become more educated, the devastating effects will surely diminish. The little things, such as a parent asking his or her child if they are experiencing cyberbullying or a teacher taking the time to inform his or her students about safe Internet use, will lead to ultimate success.

Although dealing with issues of cyberbullying is only a small step in taming the Wild West of Web media, it is a step in the right direction and one step closer to reaching the final goal.

Jamie Pfister is an undergraduate student at Southern Illinois University Carbondale.
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Title Annotation:Media Accountability in the Digital Age?
Author:Pfister, Jamie
Publication:Gateway Journalism Review
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 22, 2011
Words:1005
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