Family Matters

Cyberbullying? Homophobia? Tyler Clementi’s Death Highlights Online Lawlessness

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When a Rutgers University freshman allegedly streamed video on the Internet of his roommate’s homosexual encounter in their dorm room, leading the roommate to leap to his death from the George Washington Bridge, it highlighted the strange new technocratic world kids — and all of us, for that matter — inhabit.

Was it just an unfortunate case of kids just being kids, unaware of the consequences the video prank might have? Or was it full-blown cyberbullying, with an insidious helping of homophobia? Or, perhaps, in our unregulated Wild West of a World Wide Web, the two are inextricably intertwined. (More on Time.com: ‘It Gets Better’: Wisdom From Grown-Up Gays and Lesbians to Bullied Kids)

Even bullying experts are undecided, with many calling the humiliation that 18-year-old Tyler Clementi endured outright sexual harassment and others going back and forth on whether Clementi’s roommate, Dharun Ravi, and Ravi’s friend, Molly Wei, had malicious intentions. Ravi and Wei — whose room Ravi was in when he flipped on the hidden webcam — are being charged with invasion of privacy. As the investigation progresses, it will surprise no one if the charges escalate.

Maybe we are where we are because we’ve had no teachers. No one has instructed us how to use the Internet. We’ve learned on our own, pointing and clicking, blogging and tweeting. There are no rules of the cyber-road. In a lawless Facebook-Twitter-chat-room culture with scant etiquette and 24/7 saturation, it can be hard to know where to draw the line. In February, the National Cyber Security Alliance released a report that found that U.S. schoolchildren aren’t being adequately prepared to navigate the Internet responsibly. With even toddlers getting handy with a mouse, what’s clear is that cyberbullying education has got to start with the Dora the Explorer set if it’s going to sink in.

“Our dorms are a microcosm of society,” says Marlene Snyder, the U.S. development director for the Olweus bullying prevention program, which the American Academy of Pediatrics cited last year when it called upon schools to implement comprehensive anti-bullying programs. “We have become a very uncivil place to live. This technology certainly puts a weapon in the hands of people who have not been prepared for it.”

Even though more than 6,000 U.S. schools use the Olweus anti-bullying programs, Snyder estimates that only half have gotten around to incorporating the curriculum’s cyberbullying aspect. The program includes cyberbullying programs for students in elementary through high school and explores the ethical use of Internet technology. (More on Time.com: New Study: Gay Parents = Great Kids)

Internet culture, with its avatars and screen names, can cultivate a sense of anonymity that allows people — especially teens who lack the biological ability to consistently predict the consequences of their actions —to act in ways they wouldn’t face to face. “The basic rules, standards, guidelines and values that govern how we interact with each other all should apply to how we interact with each other using technology,” says Nancy Willard, director of the Eugene, Ore.–based Center for Safe and Responsible Internet Use, which provides research and professional development to educators. “The problem is people forget that. Because it is possible to easily videotape someone in a compromising situation and show it to others, people think it’s right.”

On JustUsBoys.com, a poster assumed to be Clementi shared his frustration over the surreptitious video in a thread entitled “college roommate spying.” “I guess what he was doing was… I feel like it was ‘look at what a fag my roommate is’ … and the fact that the people he was with saw my making out with a guy as the scandal whereas i mean come on…he was SPYING ON ME….do they see nothing wrong with this?”

The writer added he was reluctant to complain about his roommate “then end up with nothing happening except him getting pissed at me….” Later, he posted that he’d reported the incident, which less than half of bullied students typically do.

This spring, the Youth Voice Project at Penn State Erie, The Behrend College released data from the first known major study to inquire about students’ perceptions of what works when dealing with bullying. Just 42% of participants said they reported bullying to an adult at school; of that group, only 34% of the time did the situation improve.

Researchers at Iowa State University narrowed the parameters even further, finding that one of every two non-heterosexual youths are regular victims of cyberbullying. Yet they often feel paralyzed, according to the study in May’s International Journal of Critical Pedagogy, with more than half indicating their parents were powerless to stop the victimization and 57% doubting a school official could help them. “They feared that there might be more retribution by ‘tattling,’” said Warren Blumenfeld, an associate professor of curriculum and instruction and the study’s lead author; he was bullied as a teen for being gay. (More on Time.com: Profiling Student Cheaters: Are They Psychopaths?)

“We’ve always focused on Internet safety — don’t give your name, your address, your phone number,” says Snyder. “We’ve been real good about that but we have missed the cruelty part.” In Clementi’s case, the general online cruelty took on an added anti-gay note. “This is a case of discrimination based on someone’s sexual preference,” says Nancy Mullin, director of Raleigh, N.C.–based Bullying Prevention Solutions, which consults with schools, parents and community groups. “His roommate used cybertechnology to engage in sexual harassment.”

The Internet, in this case, was just a conduit — and that presents a new challenge. “Cyberbullying is kind of in its infancy at this point,” says Mullin. “Technology is advancing at such a rapid pace that kids’ ability to use the technology pretty much outstrips the adults who have responsibility for monitoring and teaching them about it.”

Shortly before Clementi jumped, a website that could have offered inspiration if not outright help was launched. Healthland wrote recently about the “It Gets Better” project on YouTube, which solicits testimonials from gay adults about how life improves post–high school. The channel has proved exceptionally popular, with more than half a million views since it began Sept. 15. Unfortunately, its premise didn’t ring true for Clementi.

“There’s a saying that we’ve now changed to read, ‘Sticks and stones can break my bones, but words can kill,’” says Blumenfeld of Iowa State.

So, apparently, can webcams.

More on Time.com:

Girls Kissing Girls: Explaining the Trend

Survey: Kids With Food Allergies Get Bullied at School

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