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Taylor Hawes

Credit: Taylor Hawes

When I was a kid, I got bullied, and I’m willing to bet you did too. Oh, no one shoved me into any lockers. I never experienced a whirly or an atomic wedgie or any other such classic hallmark of grade-school bullying. In fact, I didn’t even know I was really being bullied.

I was taunted daily by a group of mean-spirited fifth-grade girls who seemed to take particular zeal in criticizing my constantly mismatched clothes, incorrigibly messy curls and the (admittedly dorky) habit I had of raising my hand before the teacher would finish asking a question.

The girls didn’t much bother 10-year-old me. I didn’t like them any more than they liked me, so their opinions were inconsequential and their taunts fell upon blissfully deaf ears. But according to a new wave of pending litigation seeking to clarify the definition of cyber-bullying and impose harsher penalties on the kids who do it, I was the victim of “emotional distress” and “intimidation.” Apparently, if those girls had only taken to the web to broadcast their less-than-impressed opinions of me, the state could have prosecuted the little delinquents, and I could have had all my emotional distress wiped away by the magical cloth of litigation and criminal justice.

Except for one thing — we were 10. And all they did was tell me they didn’t like me. Bullying is a tenet of childhood, like scraped knees and instant best friendships. Like it or not, bullying is a form of socialization. It’s not something that we can make disappear, and just because it’s online now doesn’t mean that it’s something that we can (or even should) control.

Many have argued that cyber-bullying is a painfully intensified version of traditional bullying. It can come from so many different mediums (Facebook, phone, email), and the taunts are digitized and perpetuated once they enter the online world, posted for everyone to see.

However, there is one very important thing we can do to prevent cyber-bullying that we can’t do during occurrences of physical bullying: we can turn it off. We can block cell phone numbers and email addresses; we can delete Facebook friends and hurtful wall posts. If the internet has given so much power for evil to bullies, it has surely given the victims the same capacity for self-protection.

Right now, the New York State Senate is mulling over legislation that would update its laws concerning cyber-bullying, defining its boundaries and imposing severe punishments for transgressors. One piece of the proposal asks that “bullycide” be classified as second-degree manslaughter, which is a class C felony — a fine of up to $100,000 and up to 40 years in prison. They define bullycide as when “a person engages in cyber-bullying and intentionally causes the victim of such offense to commit suicide.”

So, in other words, willfully causing the death of another person? Forgive me if I’m mistaken, but I thought that was called homicide and that it was already illegal. It seems this piece of legislation needs a lot of clarification before it should be taken seriously. “Statutes like this are often considered broad and over-vague,” said Science, Technology and Society lecturer Matthew Hersch. “I’m somewhat doubtful of its success.”

Make no mistake: we cannot take lightly the tragic recent instances of suicide that have been linked to cyber-bullying. The idea of a person feeling so alone and so unloved as to decide to take his or her own life is heartbreaking, and we should all take steps to ensure that such things don’t need to happen — reach out to a friend whom you think isn’t well and talk to a classmate who seems lonely.

But it is a very far stretch of the legal imagination to blame anyone for someone else’s suicide, cyber-bullying or not. Furthermore, it’s not the place, job or responsibility of the government to regulate our interpersonal relationships — it is our own. Kids will bully — in the classroom, in the schoolyard or on the web. It is an inevitable result of the insecurity we all feel as we struggle through adolescence. Everyone, even those of us who count ourselves among the bullied, has most likely experienced moments of being the bully. Branding 13-year-olds as felons for the rest of their lives because of a few months of stupidity isn’t in anyone’s best interests.

The correct response to cyber-bullying tragedies doesn’t lie in punishment. It lies in prevention, it lies in common sense and human compassion, and it lies in our hands.

Taylor Hawes is a College junior from Philadelphia. Her email address is Tattle-Taylor appears every other Friday.

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