Regulator taking on cyberbullying in schools

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Schools receiving subsidies for Internet service will have to teach students about cyberbullying and the responsible use of social networking sites, the U.S. telecommunications regulator said on Friday.

Cyberbullying happens when teens use the Internet, mobile phones, or other devices to send or post text or images intended to hurt or embarrass another person, and it is a problem for nearly half of all U.S. teens, according to the National Crime Prevention Council.

It is increasingly being cited as a predecessor to suicide attempts, the third leading cause of death among 10- to 24-year-olds in the United States.

Last month, 18-year-old Rutgers University student Tyler Clementi took his life after fellow students posted video of him engaged in sexual activity online. In 2006, 13-year-old Megan Meier committed suicide after a classmate and friend’s mother bullied her through a fake MySpace account.

“It is growing by the day as kids younger and younger are using interactive technology,” Parry Aftab, an Internet privacy and security lawyer, said of cyberbullying.

“They’re now carrying around more power in their backpacks, pockets and purses than most corporations had 10 years ago,” said Aftab, who is also the founder and executive director of Wired Safety, which runs the website.

The Federal Communications Commission said it will issue an order to schools receiving funds from the E-rate program, which subsidizes school Internet access, to address cyberbullying and improper use of sites like Facebook and MySpace.

The FCC said the order would put its regulations in line with the Protecting Children in the 21st Century Act.

The agency voted in September to ease rules mandating how schools and libraries can use $2.25 billion in federal subsidies to get Internet access, allowing them to take advantage of unused fiber optic cables in localities and high-speed access from state and local networks.

E-rate funded schools, which the FCC said represent the “vast majority of schools,” must have Internet safety policies and filters to prevent access to inappropriate content. The new order will ensure that these policies also include online safety education, FCC said.

Aftab said her organization will release its Stop Cyberbullying Toolkit for Schools on November 22. The toolkit will offer $850,000 worth of resources and materials for free downloads by schools to create programs to curb cyberbullying.

The FCC also announced plans to open the application process for a pilot program that would fund wireless Internet access and mobile learning devices, which could become increasingly important as students use new devices like tablet PCs and smartphones to get access to their schoolwork.

The agency said schools and libraries can apply for the program in the coming days, with applications due by mid-December.

To further its education agenda, the FCC will also host a forum on kids’ use of mobile technology on December 1.

Reporting by Jasmin Melvin; Editing by Dave Zimmerman and Robert MacMillan