In what is becoming a sadly familiar story, a 12-year-old girl named Rebecca Sedwick killed herself last week after months of both in-person and online torment by her peers.
What is especially frightening, at least to me, is that Rebecca’s family took all the recommended steps to protect their daughter. They immediately notified the school, then withdrew her from the school when the torment didn’t stop, and enrolled her at another one. They sought mental health counseling. They “unplugged” her from the websites bullies were using to reach Rebecca. And yet despite all these efforts, the bullies got through, and Rebecca took her own life.
Online venues are ripe for bullying and abuse. Anyone who has ever been bullied knows how much mob mentality can play into inflicting damage. Safe in a group, a bully can say and do things they most likely would never do solo. Online, you can be part of a group 24/7. If your friend said something mean 6 hours ago, you can still tag along and add your voice to it, gleefully one-upping her in a quickly escalating burst of emotional violence. Teens push boundaries, and discovering the nasty pleasure of making someone feel awful remotely is another boundary to push. Once you’ve said something online, saying it in person doesn’t seem so unimaginable.
Additionally, the anonymity of text can push a bully further than they would ever go in person. This isn’t just true for teens; how many adults do you think would say, to someone’s face, the cruel/ racist/ inflammatory messages they type onto a comment section or social media site?
It may seem unbelievable that 12-year-old girls would be so cruel as to drive a peer to suicide. While I’d venture that the bullies did not, in fact, truly want Rebecca to kill herself, neither does the situation surprise me. Not only have I worked with 12-year-old girls as an adult, but as a 12-year-old I became a target of my peers. 12-year-old girls can be relentlessly cruel, without the adult knowledge of the damage they are inflicting. For me, a saving grace was that the bullying had to be in person or over the phone, and as long as I could go home and have my mother screen calls, I was safe and bullies couldn’t intrude. With cyberbullying, home ceases to be a place of safety.
There are many issues that are important to talk to your teen about, some of which we’ve addressed before in this blog. Here are a few:
- Talk to your teen about bullying, and why it’s not okay. Make it clear that in your family, cruelty to others is considered immoral and wrong. What’s more, bullying is illegal. If you ever find your teen engaged in bullying- online or in-person- make sure the consequences are immediate and meaningful.
- Ask your teen to tell you if they are bullied, online or in-person. Explain that you will work with them to find a solution you both approve of, but that the first step is to know that they don’t have to go through that alone.
- Make sure you get your teen into mental health care if they seem depressed, or even if they are being bullied and don’t seem depressed. Mental health care has saved countless lives.
- Monitor your teen online. It’s unlikely you will ever be able to be aware of every online interaction or communication they have, but try to keep tabs on social media.
- Rebecca apparently refrained from telling her parents about further bullying because she feared losing her cell phone. Nothing is more important to a teen than social connection. Recognize that an “unplug” from the internet, while it might make sense to us, may be inconceivable to a teen. Remember how important those late-night phone calls with your friends were to you, and understand that now Facebook and texting have somewhat taken over those roles. If your teen is being cyberbullied, make a joint plan on how to avoid bullying while still keeping in touch with friends. Ask for daily updates on how it is working.
- If bullying is happening at school or coming from school peers, talk to the school, and make it clear that you expect bullying to stop immediately. Washington state law backs you up here. Ask for a clear plan on how the school will stop the bullying, and ask for an update after each step.
- Remind your teen that they can be a hero, and maybe even save a life, by speaking up when they see someone else being bullied. If they don’t feel safe defending someone in person or online, they can notify you or another trusted adult about what’s going on.
- Tell your teen that if they are ever thinking about suicide, they need to tell you immediately. Tell them you won’t be angry, and that while hearing that might make you sad for a little while, the pain of losing them would last forever.
Cyberbullying is a common and devastating occurrence. I would love to hear how other families have handled it, and what steps they’d recommend to others.