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The online buck stops where?
After getting no help from the police, her school or Facebook, a 14-year-old American teenager and her parents took matters into their own hands. After nearly a year of online bullying and abuse via Facebook, Alex Boston sued two classmates and their parents for libel earlier this year.
According to reports, the students had created a fake Facebook account using her name and a distorted photo. Then they used the account to post a racist video on YouTube and also left inappropriate comments on her friends' Facebook pages – implying the 14-year-old was sexually active and smoked marijuana.
Alex discovered the existence of the fake Facebook page when her friends became upset about what she'd ostensibly been posting. She experienced “hatred, contempt and ridicule by her classmates and peers”, said Wired magazine.
The school and teachers were unable to help when approached by her parents because the activity had taken place off school grounds. Likewise the police were unable to assist because the state of Georgia has no cyberbullying laws. Alex's parents also repeatedly complained to Facebook and requested the page be removed, to no avail.
A year down the line Alex and her parents decided to sue both the students and their parents for defamation and the intentional infliction of emotional distress. According to Wired, the parents of the children are named as well, because they paid for the internet access that was used to create the fake account and post the messages, and failed to supervise their online activities.
According to Alex's lawyer, Natalie Woodward, speaking to CNN, Facebook is being used by students as a weapon time and a time again to lash out at other children for no other reason than mean-spiritedness. They hope this case will draw attention to the issue and change the way similar cases are handled by schools, police and the government.
And there's the rub. Whose responsibility is it to protect children from these new cyber-challenges, and what are the potential ramifications if we get this wrong?
What is particularly interesting about this story is:
- The parents of the bullies were named in the lawsuit as well because they enabled the online activity and failed to supervise their kids. As important, I would argue, is that they failed to properly educate their children about correct behaviour online, it's importance, and the ramifications of getting things wrong.
- Things are moving so fast when it comes to technology that laws, school rules and other codes that exist to ensure the smooth-running of society simply can't keep up. Instead, these codes are being tested now and the current generation of children are the guinea pigs. In some cases, it is clear laws need to change: for instance, strictly speaking in many countries a child can be criminalised for sexting – the sending and receiving of sexually explicit images – under child pornography laws. However, in others it may be that existing laws are adequate, they just need to be tested and interpreted in a digital context.
- Facebook, despite its widely publicised efforts at protecting children, only responded once the lawsuit was filed and the story made the news. I have no idea why this was the case, but if anyone has tried to contact Facebook, you'll know its very hard to get in touch with a real person. But it is hardly realistic or acceptable that any parent wanting to get a response from Facebook first needs to file a lawsuit and appear on CNN.
- It is not clear from the news reports whether Alex and her parents engaged with the bullies and their parents at any stage of the process as well as looking for help from the school, police and finally the courts. In the wider debate over how to protect children online, I am alarmed by how often we are happy to abdicate responsibility for our children's safety to third parties, be it schools, mobile phone operators or governments. My primary concern is that it should be up to each family to decide was is appropriate and safe for each child, rather than outsource this to someone else. This approach inevitably results in a big on/off switch that doesn't give our children the space to learn and grow in a digital environment and become well-adjusted young adults capable of dealing with these challenges themselves.
Was a lawsuit the right approach? From the media coverage it appears that Alex Boston is very young and very overwhelmed. One wonders what the impact of being “that girl in the Facebook bullying court case” is going to be on the rest of her high school career and into young adulthood. To their credit, Alex and her parents had struggled for more than a year to reach a resolution before jumping on the litigation wagon.
There is no easy answer, especially for families going through what must be an extremely traumatic experience. However, what we decide today is going to impact on our future, and parents need to think very carefully about outsourcing decisions around how to protect and guide their online children.
Vanessa Clark is the co-founder of Mobiflock, a parental control service for cell phones.