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Another heartbreaking story. In late 2013, a twelve-year-old girl jumped to her death at an abandoned cement plant in Polk County, Florida. Why? Was she having trouble in school? Dealing with the death of a family member? Having trouble facing a diagnosis of cancer? No. She was suffering from something far more insidious—and preventable. She was the victim of cyberbullying.
Young Rebecca Sedwick killed herself because she was being harassed by two of her peers, one 12 and one 14. So much for parents believing their pre-teen daughters only use social media to talk about cute boys, clothes, and exchange the latest photos of Justin Bieber. What kind of messages were the young perpetrators sending in this case? “Drink bleach and die.”
Rebecca’s mother pulled Rebecca out of her current school and enrolled her in another school. But here comes the impact of the Internet: Even though Rebecca was no longer physically present to taunt, the bullying continued.
Through social media cell phone message applications such as Kik and Ask.fm, the messages continued. One asked: “Wait a minute, why are you still alive?” She wasn’t for long.
In September of 2013 Rebecca changed her username to “that dead girl.” Shortly thereafter, she took action that made that username a reality.
Coming to a Computer Screen Near You: Cyber Bullies are a Sign of the Times
If you are getting worked up just reading this, you are not alone. I have prosecuted stalking cases for years. But cyberstalking cases are a product of modern times. Cyber threats and terrorism of young people are getting out of control. And cyberbullies are apparently getting younger and younger. Already a cyberbully at twelve? How did this happen?
Cyberbullying is a crime, and Florida has a cyberbullying law in place. But while we can wrangle over applicable laws and punishment appropriate for such behavior, the larger issue is figuring out why in the world this terrible tragedy occurred in the first place, and discussing how we can prevent this type of thing from ever happening again.
Teasing, taunting, and fights by the bike racks are not new methods of intimidation on the schoolyard. Online threats and intimidating messages delivered directly to your child’s smartphone anytime of the day or night, however, is a new phenomenon. No longer is the home the fortress of the bullied child. Now, a young person’s schoolyard enemies have access to him or her anytime of the day or night.
The insidious crime of cyber bullying is a sign of the times. How does it start? Sometimes it evolves from seemingly innocent Internet friendships that look promising at first—yet take a turn for the worse over a disagreement or perceived slight. Suddenly, what was initially mistaken as a friendship ends in heartbreak, threats, or worse.
Other times, cyber bullying is an extension of real life bullying behavior, conveniently continued from the privacy of the perpetrator’s home.
The Internet: The Great Disinhibitor
The Internet is empowering. It is liberating. It is a place where some normally shy people find the courage to make friends and build relationships. Young people who feel awkward in social settings often enjoy connecting with others online because it is a place where they can be encouraged, validated, and affirmed. Unfortunately, it is also a place where they can be terrorized.
In cyberspace, the sense of liberation often comes with a sense of unaccountability. Many people consider their real lives far removed from the activities they engage in online – as if somehow, like Las Vegas, what happens online stays online. No such luck.
Why are people lulled into this false sense of security? Perhaps because from the comfort of their living room, or relaxing behind their computer screen, some of our young people might not consider the power of the words they type, and the effect they can have on someone else.
This is a painful lesson that often is learned the hard way. As cases like Rebecca’s illustrate, guns aren’t the only lethal weapons.
Words Kill People Too
We live in a day and age where it is not only guns that kill people; words kill people too. This is a teaching point. Education is already front and center of the debate over the pro’s and con’s of teenagers using social media. Putting the salacious topics of sexting and selfie syndrome aside for the moment, as well as the despicable practice of revenge porn, we are currently tackling the misperception that words don’t hurt people online.
The painful reality of the power of Internet messaging is that just like in real life, words can kill. Rebecca’s case illustrates the damage one can do from behind the comfort and perceived shield of their computer screen.
Remember the good advice your parents gave you when you were really angry—stop and count to 10 before you say anything? This advice applies whether you are on or offline. We can only hope that Rebecca’s case will serve as a wakeup call for other teenagers. Because as her case demonstrates, sometimes you not only can’t take back your words . . . you also can’t undo the impact they had on someone else.
Author: Wendy L. Patrick, Ph.D. career trial attorney and an expert in criminal law