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Cyberbullying: The dark and deadly side of social media

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By Lisa Kalinski, New Oakland Therapist

Kids have been bullying each other for generations. What makes it different now is the long-standing nature, the permanent nature of statements on line.

Rosalind Wiseman, Author of two books on bullying

If it takes a village to raise a child, it’s now taking a national awareness movement to prevent our children from causing devastating emotional wounds and provoking suicidal thoughts and actions on their equally young and fragile peers.

Social media has vastly intensified the ability to inflict relentless pressure and pain, and America has been jolted again by the suicide of 12-year-old Rebecca Ann Sedwick of of Lakeland, Florida, who leaped to her death from a cement factory silo.

Rebecca Ann Sedwick

Rebecca Ann Sedwick

What makes cases like this so deeply troubling is that Rebecca couldn’t escape. Her mother pulled her out of the middle-school, home schooled her and then had her transfer to a different school. But Rebecca’s 14-year-old tormentor still attacked on Facebook, telling her to “kill herself” and to “drink bleach and die.”  After Rebecca fell to her death the girl posted, “Yes I bullied Rebecca and she killed herself, but I don’t give a (expletive).”

It was then that the Polk County Sheriff arrested the 14-year-old on charges of aggravated stalking, a 3rd degree felony.

The viral effect of social media allowed her tormentor to recruit as many as 15 girls who picked on Rebecca for months through online message boards and texts. She had no effective defense, no hiding and no escape. Even her mother’s awareness and vigilance couldn’t shield her daughter from a prolonged and ultimately deadly attack.

The words of cyberbullies live online forever, keeping psychic wounds open and bleeding and leaving victims like Rebecca feeling that there is no way out other than to end her life.

Where were Rebecca’s friends to buoy her up and bring the bullying to light? Were they fearful of soliciting the same behavior and becoming victims as well?

Justin Patchin, professor of criminal justice at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire and co-director of the Cyberbullying Research Center says that  about one-fifth of all teens report having experienced cyberbullying. He says that the actions in the Florida case were extreme because of the length of the harassment, the number of teens involved and the seriousness of their postings.

New Oakland advises parents and kids to utilize all their defenses. Parents must be keen observers of changes in their child’s behavior and need to monitor their teens’ social media interactions. Gain trust by not reacting to any postings that don’t cause alarm.  There may be no fool-proof solutions to cyberbullying, but at least awareness gives you a chance to intercede before it’s too late.

The good news is that there are now hundreds of anti-bullying organizations and many schools are creating help lines and student awareness campaigns.

When Dr. Ismail Sendi created New Oakland several decades ago to help combat society’s growing tide of childhood mental illness he said, “These are all of our children, and if we don’t protect them, no one will.”

Sadly, those sage words ring true in this new age and its tide of cyberbullying, demanding that we never allow innocents like Rebecca Ann Sedwick die in vain.