Attorney General Harris on Cyberbullying

"We're just beginning to make progress against cyberbullying."

By Kamala D. Harris

More than 70 percent of middle and high school students report being bullied. Many adults can recall bullies on the schoolyard during their youth, but in the 21st century, the schoolyard is the online space. Bullies today use cellphones and online social networks to torment other children, sometimes with devastating results.

Last year, Phoebe Prince, a 15-year-old in Massachusetts, committed suicide after fellow students stalked and taunted her on social networking sites. Here in California, sixth-grader Olivia Gardner, of Novato, experienced traumatic harassment online that followed her through three schools on an "Olivia Haters" page on a popular networking website.

These aren't isolated incidents. As many as 56 percent of teens report being cyberbullied, and certain groups, such as lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender teens, are targeted more than others. Teenagers who are cyberbullied are more likely to struggle with depression and substance abuse. They are at a higher risk offline to be victims of sexual harassment and physical assault.

Bullying is also linked to delinquency. Like their victims, bullies are more likely to be truant from school and suffer academically. Studies show that bullies in middle and high school are more likely to get into fights, carry weapons to school and be convicted of a crime by the age of 24. In other words, cyberbullying has real-world and long-term impacts, not just on the young person who is bullied but also on the criminal justice system.

California recently enacted two laws criminalizing certain forms of online impersonation and giving school officials the authority to suspend or expel students who engage in cyberbullying. These laws are crucial to promoting safety, but they aren't enough.

As a career prosecutor and California's attorney general, I have long advocated prevention as key to being smart on crime. Any lasting solution to cyberbullying likewise needs to do more than punish bullies; we must intervene early and tackle cyberbullying at its root.

We need to create a culture of online safety and digital citizenship. Young people need guidance on appropriate behavior online. Children and teenagers should have ready answers to questions like: What is the line between acceptable online behavior and bullying or harassment? What should I do if my friend is being cyberbullied? When should I talk to a parent or teacher about online conduct that makes me uncomfortable?

Guidance around safe and responsible online behavior should be a core part of the curriculum in all schools -- especially in elementary and middle schools, where research shows that digital education is most effective. A variety of state and nonprofit organizations have begun this effort, but we must do more to integrate digital safety into the daily lives of students, both at school and at home.

Ultimately, it is young people themselves who must make the Internet a place of tolerance. They have the most at stake. Their generation is the first to be born into a digital, connected world, and they will have the biggest hand in shaping its contours. I hope we can all affirm that, while the Internet has changed how we interact, it has not fundamentally changed how we should treat one another.

As published in the Mercury News, November 15, 2011