Worried about cyber bullying? Hundreds of news stories have touched on the problem and, every day, thousands of Americans are searching online to learn more about the problem. Today, I’m asking you to weighing in with comments on the tough privacy issues in both the problem and the solution.
Right now, most of us are carrying technology that can blow away our persona—the face we show to the world—and expose our vulnerable private lives. Smartphones are a great example, and The New York Times has recently shown just how complex the web of privacy issues can be when it comes to texting devices. Writer Jan Hoffman chronicles cyber bullying by young “tween” students using smartphones as well as computers to text one another and to access social networking sites, particularly Facebook. The cyber bullying heaps graphic abuse and threats onto those chosen as victims. Girls are especially vulnerable, but also active as bullies. Hoffman notes a Cyberbullying Research Center report that claims 20 percent of middle schoolers have been victims.
Though the bullying relationships are largely school-based, when parents have come to teachers and administrators to ask for intervention, they have largely been unsuccessful. That’s because privacy concerns over the contents of cellular phones make it dangerous for a school official to confiscate and search a student’s phone for incriminating texts. Even if a bullying string of messages is found, that’s no guarantee that the student in question wrote them; the Times documented a case in which one student’s phone was used by another student to threaten and bully a victim. There’s also scant evidence to prove that the bullying happens at school or on school grounds.
Certainly, cyber bullying shatters the privacy of the victim and their family, has led to at least five suicides including the suicide in January of Phoebe Prince, and the obvious context for all of this is the school environment.
But, wait a minute before you add a comment! If we jump to the conclusion that student cell phones ought to be routinely handed over and searched, it’s important to remember that setting such a precedent would also invade the privacy of every contact and every text string on that phone. Few parents want their private conversations with their children to become public record, for instance. And routine fishing expeditions for incriminating or indiscreet photos are scarcely something to encourage.
It’s just one example of technological advances creating new and powerful challenges that deeply affect individual privacy rights.
What do you think?
Would you agree to have your child’s phone or computer swept regularly by school officials?
Whose privacy trumps?
TIM MORAN, the author of this week’s OurValues series, is a longtime freelance journalist whose work has appeared in national publications. Tim has written about a wide variety of topics, with concentrations in business, technology, and automotive subjects. He is a second-year graduate student at Wayne State University where he is studying history, a lifelong passion.
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