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Her name is Rebecca Sedwick. She’s dead. She was 12 years old.
Rebecca, a middle-school student in Florida, threw herself off the silo of a cement plant last month. Her death followed at least one other suicide attempt, in which she cut her wrists, and followed a variety of taunts and exhortations to “die” allegedly made by 14-year-old Guadalupe Shaw. The story goes that Shaw resented Sedwick over competing affections for some boy. Shaw supposedly enlisted Sedwick’s best friend, turning her against Sedwick. A cabal of as many as 15 girls at Rebecca Sedwick’s school conspired to harass and torment her, in person and on the Internet, making her life “a living hell.”
What many are missing among the headlines is not the fact that a girl was bullied, both in school and on social media. It isn’t that she committed suicide over the harassment, either, despite the fact that cyber-bullying and other technologically abetted harassment has figured prominently in other deaths (such as the suicide of a Rutgers student whose roommate used a webcam to spy on him during a homosexual encounter). It isn’t that social media can be used to facilitate harassment and bullying outside school hours and off school property.
The horrible lesson here is that social media can be used to facilitate harassment beyond the reach of school administrators and parents.
Following Sedwick’s suicide attempt a year ago, and subsequent to allegations that another girl at school “wanted to fight her,” her parents started homeschooling her. She was scheduled to start at a new school this fall. This is the nuclear option for a child who has been bullied, the most powerful weapon in a parent’s armory. You’re being bullied at school and administrators can’t stop it? Well, then, beloved son or daughter, we’ll take you out of that school. You’ll go somewhere else entirely, and the problem will end forever.
Except that it didn’t.
Using social media, so tied to teens’ and preteens’ social interactions today, Rebecca Sedwick’s bullies were able to pursue her and continue chipping away at her psyche. Psychological warfare is the practice of finding levers, triggers and pressure points that bother someone. It is using these levers, triggers and pressure points to assault that person’s mind, to cause mental strain and emotional distress. Using the Internet and social media, any one of us can wage psychological war on any others among us. We can reach out and hurt them, harm them, affect them, without ever touching them.
The solution to cyber-bullying is the off switch on your phone or computer. Hurtful words, hateful speech, bullying taunts, have no power not granted by the recipient. If people are saying mean things to you online, you either block them and ignore them or you turn off the damned computer. If people are sending you nasty instant messages or texts, you download the appropriate software to block the messages or you change your phone number.
But Rebecca Sedwick was 12 years old. She’s not expected to be able to exercise adult restraint. She’s not legally capable of making a variety of decisions for herself. She’s supposed to enjoy the supervision, the oversight, the protection of her parents and teachers. Yet none of those adults, none of the people capable of exercising the discipline and decision-making required to turn off the computer and put away the phone, actually made that call for Rebecca. The harassment this girl was experiencing took place in a realm that her parents and teachers simply did not or could not police at all times. Certainly Guadalupe Shaw’s parents did not know or care what their daughter was alleged to be doing. The same is true for the parents of the other girls believed to be involved in the harassment.
Predictably, when Guadalupe Shaw posted that, yes, she bullied Sedwick, and no, she didn’t care, Shaw’s parents immediately bleated that their daughter’s account had been [conveniently] hacked. Just how this “hacking” is supposed to take place, under what platform and by what mechanism, is never explained when such an excuse is deployed. Using the “I was hacked” dodge is equivalent to admitting that you don’t understand how computers and the Internet work.
People simply aren’t “hacked” randomly by strangers who post a single message that just happens to incriminate the specific account owner. It wasn’t believable when Anthony Weiner claimed he’d been “hacked” (by people who wanted nothing more from his account than to transmit pictures of his block and tackle to young women). It is equally unbelievable that Guadalupe Shaw’s account was “hacked” in precisely (and only) the way required to show that she’s a callous monster who doesn’t care about Rebecca Sedwick’s suffering.
What’s worse, there’s a good chance Shaw and her cabal learned how to bully from programs warning against it. A recent study drawing on data from all 50 states indicates that such programs don’t work – and that, in fact, they teach children how to bully their victims more effectively by giving them ideas.
Once, we stupidly told our children to “try to make friends” with their bullies, to “run and tell an adult.” This was bad advice. Bullies understand force and only force. The only way to stop harassment is to punch the harasser in the face, sometimes repeatedly. Every child who’s ever been bullied, excluding recent wired generations, could tell you that. Now, however, everything’s changed. Now our children’s bullies don’t have faces to punch.
Rebecca Sedwick’s death teaches us that despite multiple warnings, despite taking extreme action in her defense, despite multiple opportunities to protect her from those harassing her, the power of the Internet and social media to reach our children often trumps parents’ and teachers’ willingness to monitor and intervene. This problem has a simple solution. That solution is still the “off” switch and the “close window” icon. But children cannot and will not make those decisions on their own. More now than ever, they require the decisive action of their parents and their teachers.