MARY LOUISE KELLY, Host:
A New Jersey lawmaker has introduced legislation to make the penalties harsher for cyberbullying. This comes after the suicide of Rutgers University freshman Tyler Clementi. He jumped off a bridge a few days after two fellow students recorded Clementi's romantic encounter with another man.
As Nancy Solomon reports, the episode is raising questions about whether schools are doing enough to teach kids the basics of digital citizenship.
NANCY SOLOMON: The two students who were arrested on invasion of privacy charges haven't said why they tried to broadcast a video of Clementi's sexual encounter with another young man. But the tragedy is widely seen as a case of cyberbullying and homophobia. Yet the two alleged perpetrators - Clementi's roommate, Dharun Ravi, and Ravi's friend Molly Wei - were, by all accounts, good students who had no history of cruel behavior.
LOUISE KELLY: I think it's a case that good kids can do terrible things.
SOLOMON: John Palfrey is with the Berkman Center for Internet and Society, and the author of "Born Digital: Understanding the First Generation of Digital Natives." He says more laws on cyberbullying aren't going to change bad behavior. Instead, adults need to reach out to kids in the new hybrid world young people live in, that is both virtual and real.
LOUISE KELLY: We need education. We need mentoring. We need parenting. We need to have good law enforcement. We need to have social workers figuring out how to reach out in cyberspace as well as in real space, and so forth. It's an all- hands-on-deck kind of an issue.
LOUISE KELLY: Schools have been late to the party, overall. I mean, I think that the technological revolution has, in some cases, outpaced schools' ability to keep track of it.
SOLOMON: Jim Steyer is founder and CEO of Common Sense Media, a nonprofit that provides information about movies, videogames and technology for children. It has written a curriculum to help schools teach digital citizenship. It focuses on how to teach kids to think critically about the Internet, and make ethical decisions about its use. Steyer says he was flooded with requests as soon as it was released.
LOUISE KELLY: There is so much education that needs to be done and for the most part, kids who are in college today never received any form of digital media education or literacy or citizenship training when they were in high school or middle school.
SOLOMON: The school where Ravi and Wei both graduated from last June - West Windsor-Plainsboro High School in New Jersey - has on its website a long list of 21st-century competencies required for graduation. The list includes financial literacy and environmental literacy, but makes no mention of the digital world. Officials there won't comment on whether or not they teach students about cyberbullying, but the state does require it.
When students arrive at Rutgers University, they can attend optional freshman orientation sessions that teach etiquette on the Internet, as well as the dorm room. Kaitlin Sheerin, a junior at Rutgers, says she remembers signing a contract as a freshman that specified the need for respect among students.
LOUISE KELLY: I think the two kids who did this are, obviously, not good people. I mean, I would never think of invading my roommate's privacy like that. It just wouldn't come to mind. To me, it's something that's sick.
SOLOMON: Like many students here, Rutgers senior Hina Khaliq is dismayed by Tyler Clementi's suicide. But, she says, the problem is that the rules of the Internet are not clear.
LOUISE KELLY: There's no like, guideline that's set down for us when we start using the Internet at an early age - or at any age. So I think it's a free-for-all.
SOLOMON: But it doesn't have to be. Researchers say social workers, teachers, even parents need to reach out to troubled kids online. They're not talking about monitoring or limiting access, but providing the kind of brick-and-mortar services available at community centers, schools and health centers, in the virtual world as well.
For NPR News, I'm Nancy Solomon.