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Rachel Busman, PsyD Headshot

Free Speech? Free Bullying?

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I just finished reading Natasha Lerner's eloquent Huffington Post piece about Ask.fm and the cyberbullying that has been increasingly associated with the social networking site.

It seems clichéd, but it feels like every day I read or hear about another example of bullying that happens through social media. There are hateful posts that ask others to comment on a teen's looks, her friends, her social status. Comments that go up on Facebook include "Why don't you go kill yourself?" and vicious name-calling.

The level of anonymity afforded by some of these sites creates just enough distance for tweens and teens to "post without thought" and act impulsively without regard for what may come. Kids this age are not thinking about the consequences of a post -- the potential for others to gang up on a person, or comments that get out of control and take on a life of their own.

When I think about this subject, I keep coming back to the word "accountability." We hear more and more that schools have a "no tolerance" policy for things like bullying, and I believe that in some cases more action is being taken when kids experience it at school. But what about online? How do you enforce a "no tolerance policy" in the digital wilds? Some schools say that the things that occur online, after school hours, are not really the school's responsibility. Parents who know far less than their children about the digital world find themselves helplessly wondering "What can I really do?" even as they understand the seriousness of the problem.

What is the solution to this? I think a real first step is to stop seeing these examples as isolated incidents and view them more as a growing problem that can occur anywhere, across any demographic group, online or in the real world. Then we need to realize that this problem requires more vigilant parenting, stronger rules and regulations, and maybe even real legal consequences. Would teens change their behavior if they knew that their online activity could be seen by college admissions? If the legal repercussions were clear? I would think so.

I am a huge supporter of online activity for kids when it's creative, fun, and safe. I have no problem with posting pictures or stories that highlight the amazing ideas kids have (which they do) and showcase their talents in writing, art, sports, etc. In fact, I do what I do because I believe that kids thrive when given the opportunity and parameters for success. This does not, however, mean an "all access pass."

Food for thought, even if it does not go down well.