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Experts Debate Causes, Cures for Cyber Bullying and High Risk Behaviors

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WASHINGTON, June 29, 2010 – The best way to avoid cyber bullying is not to be a teenage girl, said an expert on Tuesday at a panel discussion hosted by the Progress and Freedom Foundation.

The remarks, made by Michael McKeehan, Verizon’s executive director of internet and technology policy, were in response to a question on “high risk behaviors” that lead children to become targets of online bullies.

McKeehan was participating in a panel titled, “Sending an Online Safety Message to Congress,” which addressed challenges and potential solutions that face Congress, communications agencies and others in crafting a strategy to keep children safe from abuse over the internet.

According to McKeehan, this abuse is often gendered, because while boys “will punch each other in the nose and then play baseball,” girls are statistically more likely to engage in prolonged, escalating bouts of abuse.

This gender dichotomy was not the only problem covered at the panel. According to Larry Magid, co-director of, “risk factors” abound on the internet for young children. While 95 percent of children avoid these threats, a statistically significant portion of them will inevitably engage in such behaviors, he said.

Among these risk factors, Magid cited antisocial behavior such as anonymously attacking other users over forums, a practice known as “trolling” or “griefing.”

“Chat rooms tend to be a more risky environment than social networking sites,” Magid said. He added the caveat that, while widespread distribution of compromising photos to classmates would tend to make one a target for cyber bullying, distributing these photos more narrowly didn’t necessarily correlate with a higher risk for abuse. He drew a clear line between the majority of internet users and those that choose to engage in deviant behavior, either as bullies or victims.

“One of the things that bothers me is that there’s this notion that there’s an epidemic,” Magid said. “The reality is that most kids in America do not bully. Most kids in America do not send out naked pictures of themselves, and those that do don’t distribute them widely to schoolmates. These activities happen, but they don’t affect most kids. The abnormal, aberrant behavior is to act out and bully and sext and harass and use the internet in a destructive or self-destructive manner.”

Panelists debated the prospect of the government setting “defaults” on hardware that automatically would protect children from risqué sites and content the instant the hardware is used. Discussing the problem with these approaches, Adam Thierer, president of the Progress and Freedom Foundation, argued that defaults would be a potentially redundant and overly restrictive approach, given that video game console manufacturers and other software vendors already self-police. Thierer drew on precedent from the console market to make his case.

“[Games rated adults-only] cannot be played on the major three consoles in the United States,” Thierer said. “The question that is really contentious is ‘should the government set a default that is more restrictive than the one that is voluntarily set by the market?’”

Thierer suggested that such a default standard might be too restrictive, to the point of rendering hardware nonfunctional.

Another issue that arose surrounding the issue of child protection was the problem of “data retention,” a process by which internet service providers keep records of all data accessed by their customers, to aid in potential law enforcement investigations. Talking about this problem, McKeehan stressed that while data retention was a priority for corporations, national policy would have to tread lightly so as to not damage consumers’ expectations of privacy.

“You might think law enforcement would want all data retained for all time,” McKeehan said. “You’d be wrong. You might think the privacy advocates would want no data retained. Again, you’d be wrong.”

Panelists agreed on two general arguments when offering their final pieces of advice to Congress: firstly, that a diverse set of approaches was necessary, and secondly, that education was one key element of any strategy.

Speaking on this last point, John Morris, general counsel for the Center for Democracy and Technology, said, “Promote education. Figure out a way to get the resources into the schools to teach kids how to conduct themselves online."

The talk was moderated by Stephen Balkam, CEO of the Family Online Safety Institute, and preceded by a speech from Anna Gomez, deputy assistant secretary for communications and information at the National Telecommunications and Information Administration. Gomez’s speech hit several notes that would be echoed later in the discussion, hitting especially on the need to be wary of “one-size-fits-all” regulations, which Gomez called “a blunt instrument.”

“The first and most important line of defense against harmful content is education,” Gomez said.

Mytheos Holt recently graduated from Wesleyan University with a B.A. in Government and History, receiving high honors in Government. He served as a weekly columnist at the Wesleyan Argus, Wesleyan University's campus-wide newspaper, and founded the Wesleyan Witness political commentary magazine. He is originally from Big Sur, Calif., and currently resides in Washington, D.C.


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