Young people do not kill themselves just because of cyberbullying, says expert

Protecting victims should be balanced with free speech rights

“I think people ought to be very careful about attributing adolescent suicide to cyberbullying, which is not to say it might not be part of a pattern that is going on in someone’s life,” says cyberbullying expert. Photograph: Getty Images

“I think people ought to be very careful about attributing adolescent suicide to cyberbullying, which is not to say it might not be part of a pattern that is going on in someone’s life,” says cyberbullying expert. Photograph: Getty Images

 

Young people do not kill themselves “just because” of cyberbullying, a visiting US professor of law has said.

Catherine J Ross, professor of law at George Washington University, Washington DC, said evidence suggests cyberbullying is aimed at people who are already having a lot of problems.

“It is added to things like depression and isolation, that are not being treated and that haven’t been identified,” she said.

“I think people ought to be very careful about attributing adolescent suicide to cyberbullying, which is not to say it might not be part of a pattern that is going on in someone’s life.”

Prof Ross was speaking ahead of a four-day international conference, the World Congress of Family Law and Children’s Rights, to begin in Dublin on Sunday.

Some 150 Irish and international speakers will attend the event, aimed at legal, healthcare and social work practitioners, and academics and activists working with children and families. More than 700 delegates are expected to attend.

Keynote speakers will include Mr Justice Seán Ryan, Baroness Brenda Hale, judge of the British supreme court, Dr Anne Lindboe, the Norwegian ombudsman for children, and Marsha Levick, chief counsel at the Juvenile Law Centre, Philadelphia, US.

Prof Ross will address the conference on the speech rights of cyberbullies in schools and online.

Speaking to The Irish Times, she said adults get a little bit hysterical about online communications.

“I’m not saying there is nothing to worry about, but I do think there is some over-reaction,” she said.

She compared it to other generations who over-reacted to children “reading dime novels”, or “watching movies” or other new forms of entertainment adults didn’t grow up with.

“It is true, because of the anonymity or physical separation from the person you are targeting, you make it easier to be really mean, and some of the cases are really vile speech, but it may still be protected by the right of expression and then we have to deal with it in other ways,” she said.

Schools in the US have started to curb the right to free speech, guaranteed in America as part of the First Amendment, she said. And they are not just controlling speech in schools, but are also seeking to control what children say online after school hours and at weekends.

Children are most likely to be punished or respond immediately when a student criticises or makes fun of a teacher, principal or other adults at school and some punishments are very severe. Students have been expelled, sent to alternative schools for troubled children or to reformatories.

“Two students were sent to reformatories because they posted fake myspace pages, about authority figures in their schools,” Prof Ross said.

She advised Irish authorities looking at cyberbullying and trying to protect victims, to think about how to balance the rights of peers to talk to each other, even if what they have to say is unpleasant. She emphasised the importance of young people learning how to, not only be the speakers in a more responsible way, but how to respond, function and protect themselves when they are the targets of offensive speech.

“One of the core democratic principles is the right to challenge those in power,” she said.

“If kids learn in high school, they are going to get in a lot of trouble if they say those things, they will internalise that lesson . . . then we have a problem in terms of the health of a democracy, whether we have citizens who are prepared to be active participants, in their society.”