Professor John Palfrey '01

Professor John Palfrey ’01

At a recent lecture hosted by HLS Lambda and the Journal of Law & Technology, Harvard Law School’s Henry N. Ess Professor of Law John Palfrey discussed the latest legal and legislative attempts to address cyber-bullying—or, as Palfrey prefers to describe it, bullying in the digital era.

“It’s actually better … to talk about bullying in a digital era because very often the harms are occurring both in online and offline environments and actually are not easily pulled apart,” he said.

Several high-profile cases have heightened awareness of bullying in recent years, including one resulting in the tragic death of a Rutgers University student last year. Legislative measures have been taken to address the problem in most U.S. states, including Massachusetts, which passed a statute on bullying in April 2010, Palfrey said.

Palfrey stressed that a balance must be struck between aggressive responses to the problem and the protection of online speech.

Through his work as chair of the Internet Safety Technical Task Force and at the Berkman Center for Internet & Society, Palfrey and his colleagues have found that parents tend to be most concerned about the possibility of physical harm to their children, and that in the past 20 years, “there has not actually been an increase in the extent to which [a] child is likely to be a victim of sexual perdition.  It’s actually a slight decrease,” he said. “The fact is that many of the strategies have been working to keep kids safer … despite the advent of social network technologies.”

Palfrey added that law enforcement officials, especially state attorney generals like Massachusetts’s Martha Coakley, should be commended for their successful work to combat child predation, which still remains a major risk to society.

Children may be physically safer, but in the age of Facebook statuses, Palfrey said, “many studies, though not all studies, suggest that kids are more likely to be subjected to psychological harm one way or another through these digital media.”

Palfrey also emphasized that data on bullying cannot always be accurately measured: “Most studies lead one to believe there is an uptick in bullying in the cyber era, but there are reasons to wonder about the data.”

Although bullying incidents can go undetected because young people hesitate to speak up, Palfrey said, online social networks are providing adolescents with a new means to report and document incidents in a way that were never possible before the digital era.

Palfrey elaborated on the challenges that face legislative efforts to combat bullying. Although he is not sure what the perfect solution might be, he thinks it would involve a “community-based approach” toward dealing with bullies, rather than criminalization of them. It is very difficult to decide what qualifies as criminal bullying behavior when the definition of bullying is so open to interpretation.

“It is very hard to define what bullying is,” Palfrey said. “And I think that there are enough existing pegs for the worst of the cases, looking at mostly the stalking and harassment statutes … which are often state-based.”

Palfrey believes that education policies, awareness and interventions are essential to the fight against bullying because schools are often tied to bullying incidents, even if an online component is also involved.

“Education is an important piece of it – this is parents, this is mentors, this is coaches,” he said. “I’m in favor of legislation that gives money in the form of grants to do education. If you look at the Massachusetts legislation … there’s a fair amount of emphasis on doing trainings in this area, and there is value in that.”

To learn more about recent cyber-bullying research, visit the Berkman Center’s Cyberlaw Clinic and Internet Safety Technical Task Force web pages.

Palfrey’s 2010 New York Times op-ed on cyber-bullying is available here.