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Helen Popkin
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msnbc.com
updated 5/15/2009 9:02:21 AM ET 2009-05-15T13:02:21

Is it better or worse to bully someone if you're using the Internet?

Worse apparently, according to lawmakers on the most recent “Won’t somebody please think of the children?!” crusade in vogue. I, personally, would rather be bullied online, because it's super-duper hard for anyone to IM you a purple nurple.

Being harassed by anonymous jerks online, however does not call for its own legislation. The latest attempt to outlaw in the intrinsic ugliness of the Internet, with all its "sexting" and "cyberbullying," is the recently reintroduced H.R. 1966 Act, which proposes felony charges in language so vague, free speech advocates are positively apoplectic.

Amorphous language that endangers our free speech is probably just the thing that will continue to hang up H.R. 1966. But the fuss about a special law for the InterWebs sheds light on the broader issue that the lawmakers are confusing their principles with the medium. Outlawing cyberbullying is like outlawing bullying in a Southern accent. No one’s pro bullies in any dialect, but you can’t help wonder if someone’s missing the point.

You know how shutting down the "erotic services" section on Craigslist won't stop sex workers, or eliminate their higher probability of becoming crime victims by the marginalized nature of the trade? Similarly, outlawing meanness on the Internet won’t prevent hectors from preying on the weak on the Internet or turn jerks into saints in any aspect of their lives.

Attention-grabbing headlines, spotlight-hungry politicians and Internet safety crusaders would have us believe that technology is killing our children by the school bus-load. H.R. 1966 is also known as the "Megan Meier Cyberbullying Prevention Act," named for the 13-year-old girl who suicided after she suffered extended harassment on MySpace .

The people behind another proposed law, the "School And Family Education about the Internet (SAFE Internet) Act," recruited as spokesperson the mother of a teenage girl who suffered public humiliation after her nude picture was "sexted" to hundreds of people. That girl also killed herself.

Many of the news stories about these tragic events flagrantly disregard the World Health Organization’s media guidelines for reporting suicide thoroughly and without drama, so as not to incite media contagion — the proven event in which news coverage inspires copycat suicides, especially among teenagers.

Many of the stories either failed to mention, or otherwise buried the facts that Megan Meier had suicidal ideations before her MySpace ordeal or that the "sexting" victim had just attended the funeral of a friend who had recently killed herself, which increases suicide risk significantly.

When such stories are covered or laws are proposed, there is often little or no mention that the teenage suicide rate in the United States is wretchedly high, and was even before the pervasiveness of technology.

Unfortunately, sensation rallies a mob more efficiently than adequate research and dissemination of critical information: how to recognize dangerous behavior, mental illness and suicide risk in teenagers, no matter the stressor.  Case in point: In a recent Huffington Post blog entry, Rep. Linda Sanchez, D-Calif., defends H.R. 1966 in part by exploiting the ghosts of Columbine — inaccurately.

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"According to a study by the United States Secret Service, being bullied is a risk factor for perpetrators of school violence, such as the kind that was unleashed with tragic results at Columbine High School in Colorado," Sanchez wrote.

In fact, the final report from the Secret Service and U.S. Department of Education found that there is no profile for school shooters. "Columbine" author Dave Cullen, whose decade-long coverage exploded this and other myths about the massacre, writes of the shooters, "They were not captains of the football team, but they were far more accepted than many of their schoolmates."

Still, if our government representatives insist we continue to consider preposterous proposed laws while keeping our faces straight, how about a law that mandates parents to actively engage in the lives of their children? Too much? Maybe then the government can outlaw gravity next so my poor babies don't have to worry about falling down and skinning their knees. 

Meanwhile, there are lots of ways I can get all the anonymity and nastiness of the Internet out of other media. There’s calling you from a payphone, slipping nasty notes under your door, pinning a cat to your car, whatever.

Settle down. I won’t do that (because it’s crazy illegal already). But please, stop trying to legislate against meanness. People have a right to be mean. We need to draw the line somewhere, so meanness doesn't become beatings and such, but even the most brain-atrophied among us should be able to identify that distinction. And if not, well, it turns out we already have a whole mess of laws covering assault, battery, slander and libel.

It's not like Al Gore invented psychos, too. And as long as there are bold souls out there creating shiny new media we can use for communication, some maladjusted jackass is going to go ahead and be, well, a maladjusted jackass with whatever they dream up. Laws, as much as possible, should leave the question of the medium aside and focus on the spirit of the issue. If they don't, lawmakers will forever be playing catch-up.

Watch Helen A.S. Popkin exercise her constitutional right to be annoying when you follow her on Twitter — or just  be her friend on on Facebook. C'mon! All the kids are doin' it! What are ya, chicken?

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