Last Wednesday, 15-yr-old Amanda Todd, a Canadian girl, took her own life in a bullycide that has caused angst and grief around the world. Just five weeks earlier, Todd had uploaded a 9-minute long YouTube message, in which she detailed the persistent problems with anxiety, cutting, and drugs that have overwhelmed her ever since she first became the target of bullies.
Cyberbullying is one of the ugliest externalities of the digital age. With a simple click or touch, we have the world at our fingertips – miraculously quick access to more information, entertainment, and education than we could ever hope to absorb. There are thousands of ways that social media are used for good, for the dissemination of information and the raising of awareness.
But the Internet is not free, not in the way that it appears. It comes at a terrible cost to society and to civility. People shun face-to-face conversations in favor of emails and text messages, allowing a protective feeling of anonymity to affect their words. Without facial expressions, vocal intonations, and other nonverbal cues to enrich daily conversations, people are at elevated risk for misinterpreting statements and taking offense.
Worse, still, is the phenomenon of cyberbullying, where people expressly go out of their way to personally attack another person. We are not talking about a miscommunication or a simple disagreement. Cyberbullying is a form of torment.
As I sit here with a heavy heart, having watched Amanda Todd’s YouTube video, I am struck by how unforgiving the Internet is. Amanda Todd, a child, was lured by a sexual predator to flash him online. He used the images against her, and in doing so, he attracted the attention of her peers, who relentlessly attacked her. The online attacks became in-person physical attacks. This is not uncommon. Cyberbullying expert Anne Collier told me, “The kids most at risk of being bullied online are the same ones that are most at risk offline.” Very often, cyber attacks become in-person attacks, or vice-versa, and the directionality doesn’t matter.
Amanda Todd was a normal teenage girl, and like many thousands of teenagers have done since the beginning of time, she made a mistake in trusting the wrong person. But unlike teenagers who made this mistake a thousand years ago or a hundred years ago or even twenty years ago, she made a mistake in the unforgivable digital world in which we now live. Her peers have engaged in the harsh practice called "slut shaming", a terrible way to punish girls who are learning to express normal sexuality. Her one minute of poor judgment in trust (and keep in mind she was just a young girl coerced into revealing herself to someone with cruel intentions) became more prominent than the sum of all the other minutes of her life.
And, being just a kid, Amanda Todd became convinced that the repercussions of her one-minute-mistake would continue to result in bullying for every future minute of her life, to the extent that she didn’t want to live one more minute.
There is a huge amount of cyberbullying of adults that takes place, but my greatest concern lies with the cyberbullying of kids. Adults are better prepared to see the bigger picture, to know their own resilience, and to see hope in the future.
But children and teenagers are achingly vulnerable to the feeling that “it will never get any better than this.” Their entire lives are wrapped up in being connected to their peers. They do not have decades of living to reassure them that this, too, shall pass. They have not endured multiple relationships, breakups, and recoveries. They have not lived independently and learned their own strength over years of jobs lost and found, friendships gained and abandoned, homes built and fallen.
Everything, every little bit of connection, comes from their peer group. This is a time when they are so very susceptible to rejection, and bullying can take a terrible toll. We look back at what happened with Amanda Todd, and we ask, what could have been done? We ask, what can we do for the children who are in her position now? I think of my own three young daughters, and of the harsh world in which we now live, as I share my advice:
There ARE things that can be done to PREVENT CYBERBULLYING:
- Remind your kids that online actions have offline consequences.
- Tell your kids NEVER to share their password, even with a best friend or a romantic partner. When breakups occur, or even when feelings begin to secretly go sour, a password can be a terribly dangerous weapon. This is true of friendships and romances.
- Remind your kids that information they post online can never truly be deleted or taken back. It is out there.
- When available, enable strong privacy settings on social networking sites.
- Instruct your kids not to impersonate someone else online. And if they see posts that seem out of character from someone they know, have them check to make sure that nobody has hacked into a friend’s account.
- Have your kids create a safe screen name, and make sure their IM names are not the same as their email addresses.
- Check your child’s “friends list” to make sure they are friends with real people they actually know.
- Advise your child not to talk about sex with strangers online.
- Encourage your child to report suspicious users.
And, if prevention is too late, there ARE steps you can take AFTER CYBERBULLYING HAS OCCURRED:
- Print out the evidence immediately before kids can delete it (take screen shots of mean comments, save videos, etc). Take the proof to the school, and if necessary, the police. Cyberbullying is against the law.
- Have your child block/delete the bullies. Use the “block/delete” button.
- Remind your child not to react online by writing hurtful or retaliatory comments. Bullies want a reaction, and this behavior can make your child culpable too.
- Report bullying to the site or network on which it occurs. Some sites will deactivate the bully’s account. Use the “Report Abuse” link if the site has one. If not, look in the “Contact Us” area and send an email about the abuse.
- Monitor your child for signs of overwhelming depression or anxiety after using the phone or computer.
- Have your child join a support group for kids who have been cyberbullied.
- Provide comfort and support at home. Get your child involved in activities with new groups of people.
It is our job as parents to help our kids help themselves. If our kids do something stupid online, they do not need our judgment. They need our support. We can do this by serving as better models of digital citizenship, and by helping our kids through their darkest hours, so that they may choose to see the light of another day. If your child is the target of cyberbullying, be the strength that will replenish her.
Carrie Goldman is the author of Bullied: What Every Parent, Teacher, and Kid Needs to Know About Ending the Cycle of Fear.