Last week, I went to my local public library in Raleigh, North Carolina to return some library books and noticed something acutely strange. The library's computer terminals were sparsely populated. At first, I assumed the network was down, but found out internet connectivity was working well. I soon found out that the Wake County Public Library had implemented a new policy blocking the popular social networking website, MySpace.com from the library's computers. Have any of you implemented a similar policy in your school?
Public libraries, especially in the after-school hours during the weekday have increasingly become popular hang-outs for our young people. Clearly, the fact that many young people are going to libraries is not a bad thing, per se. However, many young people are going to the libraries after school solely to access the Internet without parental or some other adult supervision.
Many school districts across the country are now blocking access to social networking sites in an attempt to curtail cyberbullying. School leaders are also using district anti-bullying and anti-harassement policies to take disciplinary action against students, including suspension and expulsion. However, school district officials are confused about what kinds of actions they can take to curtail students’ online speech without running afoul of students’ First Amendment rights.
Rarely has a single issue so galvanized students, school district administrators, legislators, and the courts, as the new “buzz” over social networking Web sites. In the recent past, if students wanted to air their views in cyberspace, they needed a credit card and the know-how to create their own Web sites. Now, with the free, easy availability of chat rooms and sites like MySpace, Facebook, Xanga, as well as a host of others; students can create online profiles, upload photographs, critique aspects of their everyday lives, and . . . yes, lampoon, satirize, insult, or even impersonate other students, teachers, or school administrators.
The popularity of the social networking website, MySpace.com is unquestioned. MySpace.com was created in 2003 and in that short time has become the most visited social networking website, surpassing other social networking websites, including Friendster.com, Tribe.net, Xanga.com, and Meetup.com.
However, widespread student use of enhanced technological communication has a dark side, too. Students are using technology tools to bully and harass other students, giving rise to a new word in the bullying lexicon, “cyberbullying.” Called the “newest breed of bully,”a cyberbully can reach victims at a distance, anonymously, persistently, and in the click of a mouse. With 52% of 12-14 year-olds spending one hour per day or longer using the Internet on computers, and with that number rising to 67% in surveys of 15-17 year-olds, students have availability and access that makes cyberbullying possible. Over 20% of 12-14 year-olds report using cell phones more than one hour a day, and that percentage rises to 37% among 15-17 year-olds. Even among children ages 6-11 years, 25% of them are on the Internet more than one hour a day. A small percentage also report using cell phones regularly. Today’s cell phones can be used to text message or to take and send images; some newer models also access the Internet. Unfortunately, over half of teen and pre-teen Internet and cell phone users report that they have encountered mean, threatening, or embarrassing things said about them via these electronic communication tools at least once or twice in the past year. And 10-19% have received such messages more than five times in the past year.
Many school districts are now blocking access to social networking sites in an attempt to curtail cyberbullying. Administrators are also using district anti-bullying and anti-harassement policies to take disciplinary action against students, including suspension and expulsion. However, school district officials are confused about what kinds of actions they can take to curtail students’ online speech without running afoul of students’ First Amendment rights.
Despite the legal limbo of cyberbullying and the absence of court precedents regulating off-campus speech aimed at students over the Internet, we have developed some recommendations and suggestions for school leaders to consider. They include the following:
- School officials need to reevaluate their Internet-use management policies to include handling instances of handling student-to-student online cruelty.
- Preliminary evidence indicates that cyberbullying is extremely underreported. As a result, local school officials need to create a climate where young people know that reports and instances of cyberbullying will be taken seriously and reacted to quickly.
- School officials can be proactive in contacting the parents or legal guardians of students suspected of initiating cyberbullying-related activities.
- Schools can play a significant role in educating the local community concerning the potential dangers of cyberbullying through professionally organized workshops on ways to effectively monitor young people’s online activities.
- In Fall 2006, MySpace.com released guidelines for local school officials requesting them to contact them regarding false or offensive MySpace user profiles or the reporting of threats or cyberbullying. Additionally, MySpace.com created both a phone hotline and email address exclusively for local school officials to contact them. People need to take advantage of these services. The cyberbullying of students is highly underreported.
One of the biggest problems, espeically for school leaders is the rapid pace of technological advance; many parents and educators cannot access technology as expertly as their children or students. However, each parent and each educator must take seriously the responsibility to monitor children’s use of technology, in school and at home.
I look forward to your thoughts and comments on the issue of social networking websites and their use by students.