As cyberbullying suicides become more prevalent among young people, support groups have emerged to combat the consequences of online bullying.
Clementi, an 18-year old freshman at Rutgers University in New Jersey, U.S. leaped to his death from the George Washington Bridge. Clementi committed suicide after finding out that his new college roommate, Dharun Ravi, secretly recorded a video of him kissing another man in the dorm room that they shared. The video was then streamed live on the internet, Clementi’s most personal moments available for everyone’s amusement.
This is not the first case of a teenager committing suicide after online harassment. Thirteen-year-old Megan Meier of St. Louis, Missouri, took her own life in 2006 after being bullied online by a friend’s mother. Phoebe Prince, a pretty, outgoing teen who had recently moved from County Clare, Ireland to South Hadley, Massachusetts also committed suicide in January 2010 after a group of her peers launched a bullying campaign — at school, on Facebook, and on Twitter — against her.
These three adolescents had the potential to thrive in their teenage years, even while facing the common milestones that young adults so often do: moving to a new town, going to college, and trying to make new friends. However, online bullying, or cyberbullying, made their lives unbearable. This 21st century twist on traditional bullying made their torment and pain accessible to the entire world via the internet and was the catalyst for them to take their own lives.
With the growing prevalence of cyberbullying, the search for solutions has become more urgent. In order to end the problem, it is important to understand why this behavior is becoming more common. As people of all ages begin to exchange ideas more and more via the internet, we are facing a great shift in how we communicate. When people do not communicate in person, their exchanges become more impersonal. For this reason, it is easier to say things to or about someone that we might not otherwise say if we were talking to the person face-to-face.
This problem seems to have greater consequences for younger generations. In fact, a 2007 study published by the Pew Research Center titled A Portrait of “Generation Next” concludes that young adults use the internet more often than any other age group.
Parry Aftab, a privacy lawyer and cyber law expert, offers her insight. She says, “Kids are connected all the time in many ways. When it comes to digital technology, they do things that if they had a couple of seconds to think about they wouldn’t have done.”
Those things that they do more haphazardly also have the potential to be read by far more people online. Cyberbullying is not just a series of confrontations between the bully and the bullied. It often becomes a show for anyone with a computer and an internet connection. It is this universal aspect that gives cyberbullying more of an impact than traditional bullying. Aftab makes reference to the sometimes extreme consequences of cyberbullying. “We can now communicate with nearly the entire world at the click of a button. This is real. It has life and death implications.”
Those life and death implications were made more apparent by the suicides of Clementi, Meier, Prince, and others. The high-profile stories of these teenagers are just a few in a long narrative that has fuelled the development of support groups for cyberbullying victims. For example, Aftab has established several groups, including Tweenangels, Wired Moms, and an internet campaign called Don’t Stand By, Stand Up. This program is an online movement designed by teens who knew Clementi and want to encourage others to tell an adult if they see a peer being cyberbullied. Aftab started the program because she believes that the most powerful group of people who can stop cyberbullying is the young people who are most often the witnesses of such harassment.
In the case of Tyler Clementi, for example, she says, “If the girl who loaned her computer to Ravi had said ‘No’ or gone to tell someone, we would have one more young person here today.”
Another solution is stricter law enforcement. In 2006, the U.S. Federal Cyberstalking Law was passed, making it a felony to threaten or harass someone online. Violators could be sentenced to two years in prison. “We’ve always had these crimes,” says Aftab, who also advocates applying traditional harassment laws to cyber harassment cases. “We don’t need new laws here for cyberbullying.”
Efforts against cyberbullying are not unique to the United States. In Australia, where cyberbullies are currently prosecuted under traditional stalking laws, the National Centre Against Bullying is pushing for laws that would make a distinction between traditional bullying and cyberbullying.
Last year in the U.K., cyberbullying officially became an offense punishable by jail time. In August 2009, Keeley Houghton became the first person to go to jail for bullying other teens on Facebook, namely her schoolmate Emily Moore. The episode began when the two were both 14 and escalated with Houghton threatening to kill Moore via Facebook. Houghton was finally sentenced to three months in a young offenders’ institution at the age of 18.
Houghton’s case set a precedent in cyberbullying law. Rosemarie Fielden, an e-mail support worker for Parentline Plus on behalf of Bullying UK, says that immediately following Houghton’s sentencing, reported incidents of cyberbullying were tempered. “It appears to have been a deterrent. In the weeks after she was sentenced we received fewer complaints of cyberbullying,” she says. However, Fielden also notes that the immediate effects of the publicity stemming from the case have not been permanent. Nevertheless, she is confident that the event marks a significant development in the fight against cyberbullying. “The deterrent effect has been the publicity and people realizing there is no hiding place in cyberspace. If they abuse others they can be traced,” she says.
Aftab takes a simple, three-step approach, which she calls “Stop, Block, and Tell.” She explains, “Don’t answer back. Block the person or message and tell a trusted adult.” She also recommends taking time away from the computer or mobile device to do something that makes you feel calm. “When you have an extra five minutes, if you could do anything, what would you do?” she asks. “Think about it ahead of time to make it easier to do. Because what we’re facing on the internet sometimes is enough to make us want to jump off a bridge.”
Aftab also knows what it’s like to be harrassed online. After appearing on the popular U.S. morning show Good Morning America last July, members of a popular message board posted inflammatory comments about her online and disrupted traffic to her website, wiredsafety.org. Commenting on the experience, she outlines the importance of not responding to attacks like these. She sums up her reaction with saying, “You never feed the trolls.”