Last week, 12-year-old Rebecca Ann Sedwick jumped from a platform at an abandoned cement factory to her death after being tormented online and through cellphone apps. Suicide victims are getting younger all the time. What will it take for us as a society to take responsibility, rather than blaming bullies, apathetic schools or clued-out parents? This is a systemic problem and we are all contributing: either by our silence or by even unintentionally playing a part. Here are some factors to consider:
1. It's easy to be cruel when what you say is anonymous:
In many apps and websites there is no identification or accountability for who says what. This can and does bring out the worst of human nature. Do we need yet another death to understand that words can kill? Whether the aggression is direct such as verbal abuse and threats, or indirect through exclusion, ostracism or spreading rumors, it wears down the victim, decimating their self-esteem and suffocating vestiges of hope for a positive future. Rebecca was barraged by messages on her phone including, "Go kill yourself," and, "Why are you still alive?"
2. There's a pervasive fear of being the next victim:
Because the attacks can be so vicious, many teens are afraid to speak out or stand out from the crowd even if they do have some sympathy for one being "called out." In a survey done in Palo Alto, California, teens interviewed revealed that the anonymous questions posed on ask.fm included: "How many times have you hooked up this summer?" to, "Hottest girls in school," with responses like, "I think _____ is too ugly, fat and gross. Like why do you even say, 'Hi,' to her?" to, "How many times have you attempted suicide?" It's hard enough to be a teenager in these stressful times. When teens and adults believe, "that's just the way it is," cruelty becomes the new norm. It's time to ask ourselves is it really OK to demean, put down, humiliate and disempower other people? By overlooking this assault of "microaggressions" that people experience on a daily basis, we are propagating a culture of fear laced with apathy and it's taking a toll at every level.
3. The attacks are often well disguised:
As teens get older, they are increasingly technologically adept and socially skillful about at hiding their identity and intention. In communities that are academically competitive, students know that cyberbullying would be considered "a black mark on their school records, and they have developed underhanded ways to avoid detection or blame for mean acts." Often these campaigns of cruelty are covert and unnoticeable by teachers, but loud and clear to both victim and their "frenemies." How is this different from gossiping about "friends" over lunch, or about co-workers by the water cooler? If anything, this behind-your-back meanness is a recipe for mediocrity rather than greatness. Notably, it's not just the "bad kids" or bullies who are causing this escalation.
4. "Social combat" is on the rise:
Sociologists Robert Faris and Diane Felmlee in a study for Anderson Cooper and CNN found that "kids are caught up in patterns of cruelty and aggression that have to do with jockeying for status." Bullying can no longer be simply pinned on troubled kids; it's often "typically highly, well-liked popular kids who are engaging in these behaviors." Often those who have experienced bullying, can become the bully. One student who at one time had been bullied states, "Once you start realizing that you can have higher social power by putting other people down... that's, like, how people are moving up and that's how they're gaining respect." This is a minefield where disempowered and power-hungry kids alike think they must steal power from others, by disempowering and shaming them. No wonder stresses are escalating -- it's a virtual war zone. With over 80 percent of incidents never reported, has "social combat" become the new norm? And this is just in the schoolyard. Perhaps we should also turn our attention to the home, social settings, the workplace and even global dynamics. What 's the solution for "social combat?" Maybe we need a new definition of power: not as something that comes at another's expense, but as something that is generated from within each person, giving people of all ages the confidence to be kind, the empathy to support each other's dreams and the wisdom to align with why we are here.
5. Anonymity and the greater good:
As a culture, let's really look at why we are accepting of "confession pages," and the proliferation of apps such as ask.fm, spring.me, kik and voxer that make it easier than ever for social cruelty to spread like a cancer into the hearts and minds of young people. High school cliques have always been an issue, but now they have a weapon in their hands that can and does kill. One could argue that technology is neutral; it is how people use it that makes it good or bad. Yet, if anonymity brings out the worst in people, then is it wise to condone and passively support technology that facilitates social toxicity? The Huffington Post made a decision to ban anonymous comments. Other companies can follow suit. More can be done to prevent these problems at a design or concept level. This is a direct challenge to all the Venture Capitalists who fund these social platforms/apps and to every user who keeps them thriving.
6. The issue of popularity:
As a society, let's look at why "popularity" is the measure of a person's success and social status. Many kids and adults are crafting bigger-than-life personas on Facebook, posting all sorts of things to generate more,"likes," yet feeling, "less than," because of comparison envy. It's hard to be immune. How many people do you know who are addicted to social media? Let's not forget that reaching out to others, and the ability to give to others is one of the most important elements in building a satisfying and meaningful life. Arianna Huffington, in her Third Metric project, is now highlighting this perspective. Helping others has additional benefits. One study of nine 11-year-olds shows that on top of boosting wellbeing, kindness makes kids popular. Imagine if that became contagious...
What can be done? Educating for change:
We see time and time again that treating the symptoms and aftereffects of bullying doesn't work. With the proliferation of bully programs in schools, the problem is still escalating. We can no longer wait for the symptoms of suffering to show up in middle and high school. We have to insist that educational programs, which include: empathy skills, compassion and emotional resilience be included in the curriculum... and the younger the better. One example, Project Happiness, which I founded after my daughter suffered from a period of stress and bullying, provides programs which address the root causes rather than the symptoms, and helps kids build on their strengths to create a more civil society. In over 75 countries, it sends a message that wellbeing and happiness do not come from external sources, through the senses alone, or at the cost of either people or the planet. Wellbeing is tied to meaning, self-knowledge, emotional management, compassion for yourself and others and the permission to share your unique gift. We are moving towards the tipping point. Tragically, Rebecca will not experience it -- though her story and those of others will inspire a change. In May of 2013, Congressman Tim Ryan introduced the Social and Emotional Learning Act to promote these types of approaches. What will it take before we all can agree -- it is time.
I'd love to hear your thoughts on cyberbullying and on what could help. How do you feel about anonymous posts and the apps that support them?