Cyberbullying reaches new level

In the span of just two weeks, two promising young men have taken their own lives as a result of peer cruelty.

Tyler Clementi, a young violinist attending Rutgers University, jumped off of a bridge last week after a recording showing him having a sexual encounter with another male was broadcast online.  Clementi’s roommate, Dhraun Ravi, and fellow Rutgers freshman Molly Wei, both 18, used a webcam to surreptitiously transmit a live image of Clementi having sex on September 19; Ravi also posted content on his Twitter account announcing the encounter to his followers.

Asher Brown, 13, shot himself in the head last week, picked on for his small size, his religion and because he didn’t dress like the other kids.  Articles have also reported that kids accused Brown of being gay, and some of them performed mock day acts on him during class.  The last known round of humiliation occurred when another student tripped Brown as he walked down a flight of stairs at school; when Brown hit the stairway landing and went to retrieve his book bag, the other student kicked his books everywhere and kicked Brown down the remaining flights of stairs.

These heartbreaking stories testify to the crippling impact of intense bullying — both offline and online. We see once again that the saying “sticks and stones can break my bones, but words can never hurt me” is simply wrong.  Nothing could be further from the truth. Youth around the world are being unnecessarily harassed, tormented, targeted and abused through especially cruel words, actions, blogs, videos and photos meant to embarrass, demean, exclude and hurt, and bullies today have the benefit of technology to virally spread their harmful messages.  One out of four kids is being bullied and 42% of kids have been bullied while online. And unlike schoolyard bullying, cyberbullying continues 24 hours a day and 7 days a week.  Like any form of bullying, these harmful interactions are etched into a child’s memory banks, and there is no escaping the short-term or long-term consequences.

Technology, despite its many wonderful benefits, has escalated the scale of bullying activities and the active and bystander audiences involved in these events.  Bystanders are not only those kids and teens witnessing their peers being bullied in the hallways at school, but with the web, they include the silent audience online that has access to the trauma another kid or teen is suffering.  Individuals, for instance, who watched the live feed provided by Ravi, and who did nothing, sent a strong message to Ravi that his behavior was acceptable.  Kids today have easy access to millions of videos broadcasting violence, hate acts, sexually violent and degrading content — much of which exhibits positive reviews, hundreds and thousands of plays, and encouraging viewer comments.  Many kids also show signs of disinhibition and callousness as they communicate through the computer screen and mobile phone; without real face-to-face time, conversations escalate quickly and things are said that would never be said to a person’s face.

We all engaged in small acts of incivility when we were growing up, learning what was right and what was wrong, but for kids today, many of their indiscretions occur online, in a very public and permanent environment.  And in the online world, many of our kids lack the positive role models, parental support and guidance, and boundaries that they have in the offline world, creating new and strained rules of virtual world norms that make being a bully or being bullied far more efficient.  We need to honor these teenagers by working together to create a more supportive, safe and ethical community, both online and offline.