Adolescent violence linked to video-upload sites on the Internet is inspiring governments around the world to crack down on cyberbullying with arrests, fines and jail sentences.
The state of Victoria in Australia banned the popular video website YouTube at schools Thursday. It said it was prompted to do so after hearing about a video on the site that showed male students assaulting a 17-year-old girl on the outskirts of Melbourne.
"There are discussions about these new forms of violence going on around Europe and around the world," said Thomas Jaeger, coordinator of Visionary, an Internet portal on bullying and school violence around Europe. "We are only now learning about the problems brought by the Internet and how to deal with them."
Moves by other governments against the phenomenon -- known as happy slapping -- include a law enacted last week by the French Parliament that will treat those who tape and post violent acts as equals in guilt with those who commit the acts.
In the United States, Washington state senators announced last month that they intended to place electronic forms of harassment on a par with physical acts. Italian prosecutors late last year pursued executives at Google or allowing the posting of a video on the Google Video site that mocked a youth with Down's syndrome.
Last week in Britain, where the phenomenon has gained great visibility in recent years, the police in Yorkshire threatened criminal charges against students at Kettlethorpe High School after an incident that resulted in the hospitalisation of a 15-year-old student in Hertfordshire. The police arrested nine teenagers in connection with an attack they allegedly recorded by video on a cell phone.
Companies that post the videos, like YouTube or the Google Video website, emphasise their good faith in purging undesirable material and are generally not held legally responsible for material put up by individual users.
Can't check them all
"It is just physically impossible for us to police every video that gets posted, so we rely on alerts from users," said Rachel Whetstone, a spokesperson in London for Google. "The vast majority of people use these sites for legitimate communication."
In the Italian incident, in which teenagers recorded themselves beating and teasing a boy with Down's syndrome, Google removed the video when alerted and passed on the IP address that identified the computer that had been used to post the film, Whetstone said.
"Shutting down or banning these sites is not the answer," she added. "Just because a few people drive above the speed limit, you do not shut down the motorway."
Philippe Houllou, a lawmaker in the French National Assembly who sponsored the law to penalise happy slapping, said governments must act firmly. "This video-based violence is a new form of juvenile delinquency that is spreading," he said. "Behavior that causes such public damage to the victims deserves to be considered criminal."
In drawing up the legislation, Houllou said, careful distinctions had been made to punish those actively involved in filming violence for their own uses while protecting those who were recording scenes for news organisations or to report crimes.
Filming violence to post on the Internet now stands on the same level as participating in the actual act of violence. Those who receive a film of violence and post it could be criminally liable and could face as much as five years in prison and fines as high as US$75,000, almost $100,000.
As for the video platforms, Houllou said the criminal sanctions could raise the civil penalties if a platform that displays a video refused to withdraw offending material.
For all their good intentions, the moves by governments to control youths by banning the use of certain websites will not have much impact, said Judith Hilgers, a sociologist at the University of Trier in Germany who is conducting a year-long study of happy slapping.
"By trying to stop children from having mobile phones or using certain websites, these authority figures will only drive them underground," Hilgers said. "You can believe me when I say that kids will be very skilled at finding websites, probably on Russian servers, that do respect the same values."
Sites like www.nothingtoxic.com already specialize in showing violent or shocking videos that mainstream sites would avoid, Hilgers said.
For now, the vast majority of the videos posted by young people on YouTube -- and even many of the happy slapping videos -- are merely jokes among friends, Hilgers said.
"I really do not think that the technology has increased the level of bullying," Hilgers said. "The bullying existed long before YouTube, but now we can all see it." The real issue, Hilgers added, is that both parents and children are grappling with new forms of media.
"These video websites are a new form of media that we still do not understand," Hilgers said. "In 10 years time we will have new forms of technology that teenagers use for bullying in new forms."