The headline took my breath away. In a town close to mine, a 15-year-old had committed suicide due to cyberbullying. Described as a charming and well-liked young girl, she nonetheless crumbled when targeted on the Internet by some of her classmates. Death at 15 due to scapegoating by some of the very people she thought were her friends! I ache for her parents. I mourn for her young life. I’m furious that lives are being cut short because those who bully apparently know no limits.
Bullying has always been with us, especially during the middle school and high school years. Adolescents who feel uncertain of their own self-worth, who worry about their standing among their peers, or who just plain have a mean streak have put down the shy, the weak, the less accomplished, fashionable, or with-it kids probably for as long as there has been such a thing as adolescence.
Some adults I’ve talked to think that it’s just part of life. Some kids are up. Some are down. Weathering the changes in cliques, shifts in popularity, and the changes in hierarchy of the teen years is seen as an inevitable part of growing up. Some adults even see it as a necessary rite of passage to learn to manage a certain amount of bullying; to be able to turn a putdown into a joke; to learn to stand up for oneself. Yes and no. Momentarily being the butt and brunt of some teasing is one thing. To be the target of relentless bullying is another.
Adults who were bullied as kids have a very different view than those who were safely part of the in (or at least not out) crowd. Being stuffed in a locker may be the stuff of jokes on the very popular sitcom “Glee,” but it was no joke to the guy I know who had the whole phys ed class actually do it to him while the coach was out of the locker room. Same with being “slushied.” Funny on “Glee.” In life? Not at all. Even more damaging than physical insults are rumors, innuendo, and cruel “jokes” where some kids are put down so others can feel superior or exclusive. Memories of such torments (whether physical or verbal) stay with people and inform their sense of themselves, of others, and their safety in the world well into adulthood.
As harmful as bullying has always been, what many adults don’t seem to understand is that it’s moved to a dangerously different level now. Boundaries of social connection have been blurred and broken down both positively and negatively. Young people can connect with each other, support each other, and share their experiences immediately and constantly through Facebook, IM, Twitter, cell phone, and email. The average teen in America now spends up to 7 hours a day (that’s a day, folks) in contact with other people on one electronic device or another.
As those boundaries between people have broken down, so too has courtesy and restraint. The shorthand language of electronics doesn’t include tact. What used to be shared with one other person over the phone or in person is now shared with an entire network. What only a generation ago took days to get around school, now can take minutes. There’s little time to confront a rumor, to clarify a remark, or to stand up to a bully when negative messages get so widespread so fast and when the bully is able to be anonymous.