Important Qs raised by Megan Meier case

Although Lori Drew was convicted only on misdemeanor charges last week and though the case may yet be dismissed, the questions it raises are important ones:

* Legal

Although what happened between the Meiers and Drews in the St. Louis area in 2006 was about cyberbullying, the case against Drew wasn't, actually. It was about computer fraud. Ms. Drew's involvement in the creation of a fake profile (or real profile of a fictional teen boy character) was called by the prosecutors "unauthorized access" violating federal computer fraud law, the New York Times reports. According to the Washington Post, the case thus "expands the federal Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, which was passed in 1986 as a tool against hackers, to include social networking Web sites." Even so, the Post cites legal experts as saying, this was "the country's first cyberbullying verdict."

The Times reports that MySpace's terms of service require users to be "truthful and accurate" when they sign up for an account, yet a lot of people of all ages all over the Web fictionalize or veil their identities for many reasons – the way authors with pen names have as long as there have been books. So do cops pretending to be 14-year-old girls as they set up stings to catch online predators. In other words, there are both legitimate (including protective) and ill-intentioned reasons to be pseudonymous or anonymous online. Does this case jeopardize legitimate use of anonymity (see also "Fictionalizing their profiles" and "Online anonymity vs. cyberbullying concerns")?

Another question is about those terms of service. Does this case mean social-networking sites must enforce their terms of use? That could be both good and bad. Terms of use could become more of a mutual contract between site and users whereby users (or their parents) might actually have some sort of recourse if terms are violated by bullies. On the downside, rigid enforcement does not always have good results, where human beings (and adolescent behavior) are concerned. This is a good reminder, though, that parents and kids together check site terms of use for what they say about truthfulness. I think it also suggests that social sites consider putting their terms in plain English! But it's concerning if, as the result of this case, violation of terms could be considered criminal behavior. The proverbial jury's still out on that last point.

Bad for case law: "Let's also make one thing very clear," writes social media researcher danah boyd (who lower-cases her name). "This case is NOT TYPICAL [it's extreme and extremely unusual]. Many are clamoring to make laws based on this case and one thing we know is that bad cases make bad case law. Most of the cases focus on the technology rather than the damage of psychological abuse and the misuse of adult power." I agree. This story, if not the case, is not about computers or social networking or solely online behavior; it's about behavior. Which leads to the parenting set of questions….

* Parental

The message that parents need to be involved in right ways – as moderators (in every sense of the word) and not accomplices – is only getting stronger. Though this is a tough message for busy parents to hear, we want to be in the mix. Just as we've always needed to be engaged in our teens' offline social lives – because a primary task of adolescent brain development is risk assessment – we need to be involved in their online lives too.

We also don't want our role to be diminished in favor of "protective" law or policy, because we don't want our children's free speech and privacy rights taken away or in any way diminished ostensibly "for their own protection." Engaged parents are vital supporters of their children's rights.

An important aspect of this for parents to keep in mind is that the high visibility of an extreme case and increasing news coverage of cyberbullying in general do not mean bullying online is on the rise or adolescent behavior has changed. This is important to keep in mind about social networking too. Danah boyd makes the point that the Internet probably hasn't increased the amount of bullying; rather, it has made it and all adolescent behavior more visible – certainly, but naturally, with disturbing effect – to adults. "Now adults can see it. Most adults think that this means that the Internet is the culprit, but this logic is flawed and dangerous. Stifling bullying online won't make bullying go away; it'll just send it back underground. The visibility gives us an advantage. If we see it, we can work with it to stop it." Yes!

* Potential positive outcome

Peer support and counseling online – by "digital street workers" – is what danah boyd proposes. When she was in college, danah writes, fellow students volunteered as street workers to help at-risk "teens on the street find resources and help. They directed them to psychologists, doctors, and social workers. We need a program like this for the digital streets. We need college-aged young adults to troll the digital world looking out for teens who are in trouble and helping them seek help. We need online counselors who can work with minors to address their behavioral issues without forcing the minor to contend with parents or bureaucracy. We need online social workers that can connect with kids and help them understand their options."

She's talking about kids whose parents simply aren't there – the young people who are at risk online. "They are the kids who are being beaten at home and blog about it. They are the kids who publicly humiliate other kids to get attention. They are the kids who seek sex with strangers as a form of validation. They are the kids who are lonely, suicidal, and self-destructive…. They are calling out for help. Why aren't we listening? And why are we blaming the technology instead?" When we stop doing that, we can really start helping at-risk youth online and increasing online safety.

I propose that all social sites and services employ…

1. "Digital street workers" (older peers/young adults as online community volunteers) and
2. Paid, trained counselors or social workers on their customer-service staffs – in addition to community moderators for socializing by minors.

Your views on any of this would be most welcome – via anne[at], in this blog, or in our ConnectSafely forum. With your permission, I often publish readers' comments for everybody's benefit.

Related links

* "The 'MySpace Suicide' Case, Social Networking, and the Law" in Findlaw
* My first post on the Megan Meier case, Nov. '07 "Extreme cyberbullying: US case comes to light." See also "Dismissal urged in Megan Meier case."

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