Harvard professor delivers address at MU on impact of cyberbullying

Thursday, February 9, 2012 | 9:51 p.m. CST; updated 8:33 a.m. CST, Friday, February 10, 2012

COLUMBIA — Harvard professor John Palfrey said children born after the explosion of digital technology do not see a difference between "their online and offline selves," making the effects of cyberbullying just as strong as the actions that happen face to face.

"There is more harm happening to kids psychologically than a few decades ago," he said Thursday evening. "It's better to think about it just as bullying because it has the same core behavior and the same core effects." 

Palfrey delivered the keynote address at Missouri Law Review Symposium  "Cyberbullying: Emerging Realities and Legal Challenges". Though an illness prevented him from appearing in person, Palfrey was still able to appear — albeit from cyberspace.

Palfrey, faculty co-director of the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University and professor at Harvard Law School, delivered his address, “How To Address Meanness and Cruelty Toward Youth, by Youth: Regulating Bullying in an Era of Digital Media,” via Skype.

Palfrey defined bullying as an act that is purposeful in invoking a power imbalance, and is continual and repetitive. Although specific instances of bullying in school corridors and playgrounds can often go unreported, the Internet aids the ability to record cases of bullying while they are happening, as well as after they occur.

Even though the scientific reports on bullying show a wide range of data — some indicates the percentage of children bullied is as low as 4 percent, some say it is as high as 88 percent — Palfrey said the gap is contingent on the variety of definitions of bullying used.

"It is a very big issue," he said, "and it affects a very large number of kids."

Over the past decade, high-profile cases of school bullying and violence have led to an increase in the extent of legislation relating to bullying. Forty-eight states have implemented laws, 38 of which have specific cyberbullying statutes. The other 10 have cyberbullying and bullying under the same law.

"The state legislations tend to have one thing in common — they focus on requiring school districts to adopt these new policies, and they emphasize the fact that schools are the places where intervention is necessary," he said.

There also is a trend toward some degree of criminalization of bullying, although Palfrey suggests it would be hard to distinguish between "normal growing-up activities" and criminal activities.

For the legislation to succeed, good implementation policies need to be enforced. However, out of the 48 states that have passed legislation on bullying, only 11 offer solutions on how to fund the implementation of the laws. 

John Bremer, an MU School of Law student, thought Palfrey's lecture raised important questions about funding issues for the implementation of bullying legislation.

"I think that the fact that this topic is researched and studied in a professional setting speaks to its growing importance," Bremer said.

Palfrey said that much of the research at Berkman Center for Internet & Society shows curriculum that trains educators can be effective at reducing bullying.

The involvement of teachers, social workers and psychologists over a long period of time is much more effective than the common practice of bringing in an expert for one day to scare kids away from a certain behavior, he said.

Palfrey also talked about the perception of the issue in media and popular culture.

The discourse about Internet use among youth is often dominated by fears for the safety of children, Palfrey said. But he argued that a large percentage of what youth do online is positive and dismissed the notion that kids are worse off because of the emergence of digital technology.

"The ways in which we think about the negative effects (of technology) are often much more powerful than the truth," he said, referring to his belief that concerns such as the safety of children drown out the positive aspects of the Internet.

He highlighted that the Internet encourages creativity, innovation and activism among youth.

"Podcasts, blogging and similar platforms encourage self-expression and show kids how they can be authors, shaping knowledge in their environments," he said.

He also emphasized that many innovative websites such as Napster, YouTube, Yahoo and Google were all created by young people for young people.

While digital technology isn't necessarily making younger people more active, he said, the Arab Spring revolutions and the Obama presidential campaign serve as examples of how the Internet is being used as a tool for political and social activism. 

The symposium was co-sponsored by the Missouri Law Review and the MU School of Law. It is a two-day event and will continue Friday.

Ian Larson, editor-in-chief of the Missouri Law Review, said it was a privilege to have Palfrey speak at MU. 

"It's a timely and troublesome topic," he said. "The fact that he was able to captivate a room of a hundred people over Skype showed what a great choice he was for this lecture."

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