Thursday, April 4, 2013
Kay Stephens: Cyberbullying is not ‘sticks and stones.’ It’s psychological warfare
I’ve been following this Orono cyberbullying case very closely since it broke on the statewide scene. The Bangor Daily News reports: Teen cyberbully pleads guilty to terrorizing former Orono schoolmate. Every day, I receive stories all over the world like this: kids getting defamed, libeled, psychologically tortured by other kids through digital devices. This 16-year-old girl, Lexi Henkel, was incredibly brave to take her story public as her 17-year-old tormentor terrorized Lexi and her family to the point of vacating their home, moving schools and pushing Lexi to the brink of suicide.
So often, it seems as though adults aren’t truly waking up to the potential destruction of cyberbullying until a teenager is on the brink of suicide.
I’m not glad this happened; but I’m glad it became public. In Maine, I don’t think adults are fully comprehending how destructive cyberbullying can be. Since September, I’ve visited and spoken to parents and educators from at least 40 Maine schools to provide some perspective around the motivations behind certain types of cyberbullying and how to prevent it. Most adults leave with a better understanding that there's not a “one-size-fits-all” solution; that each incident needs to be thoroughly understood before it can be strategically dealt with. But I’ve actually had a few teachers tell me: “We don’t have cyberbullying at our school.”
They are not seeing it, because they’re not part of the kids’ digital networks, but it’s there. At its highest extreme, it becomes known to the principal and a news story. At its lowest to medium level, it’s being done covertly, through texting, email, Instagram, Facebook and Twitter. But it’s there.
But let me go back to this Orono story for a moment, because worse than the “cyberbullying doesn’t exist” mindset is the “suck it up” mindset.
Take for example this anonymous poster “Hussar” who wrote a comment in response to this Orono story:
What ever happened to "sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me?" It appears that we are raising a generation of over emotional crybabies, scared of their own shadows, that need the nanny state to protect their feelings from being hurt. I am sorry, for Ms. Henkel's pubescence angst, but this is classic case of taking ourselves and perceived dangers to our children way too seriously.
He read the same story as everyone else. He saw that these weren’t some mild, adolescent outbursts. The posts threatened the girl’s life and safety. Here’s an example of a few of them:
• “Ready for tomorrow night? I’d learn to sleep with your eyes open if I were you. I’m dulling my knife right now so when I stab you in the face, gut and legs it’ll be painful as possible.”
• “You know how all these environmental friendly groups say that waste should be properly disposed of? Well, come on Lexi, do the world a favor, and properly dispose of your [expletive deleted] self!”
• “Your face is like a baby seal. Fat, furry and just asking to be clubbed to death.”
Law 101: A "criminal threat" is when you threaten to kill or physically harm someone either in person or electronically. These are not “sticks and stones” comments. But unfortunately, I’ve seen this mindset appear in multiple comments to hundreds of cyberbullying stories I’ve read through. It’s not about “protecting their feelings about being hurt” it’s about protecting vulnerable young people from being threatened, defamed, libeled and psychologically tortured—you know, the very types of behavior that will land an adult in court. Just because they’re minors doesn’t mean they don’t have the same legal rights and protections as adults.
Yet, in several Maine schools I’ve visited, students have come up to me after a presentation and told me in confidence that “adults don’t know how to deal with cyberbullying” and that “all this talk that they were going to stop it” has basically been seen as lip-service.
So what happens is: when influential people like “Hussar” reiterate this specious “suck it up” mindset; teens who are being badly cyberbullied feel completely unprotected. Like hunted animals, they feel they will never escape the torment, never find peace or a normal life again—and sometimes they look to the extreme choices.
As Lexi’s mother Judy Henkel wrote in response to “Hussar”:
Know your facts before you write an opinion such as you did. You haven't read the emails Lexi recieved, you haven't heard your daughter say that taking her own life would be easier then having to go through all this. Having your daughter tell you she is thinking of taking her life so it would all stop is just like having a knife plundged (sic) into your heart.
Thankfully, with the staunch support of Lexi’s parents, her community and the police, Lexi has been able to tell her story. I don’t know if she will ever feel safe again as she does her best to resume a normal life, but she has given voice to a deep-seated problem that hides in the very insular walls of social media and electronic communication that we adults don’t often get a chance to see. This is probably one of the biggest cyberbullying wake up calls Maine has seen. . and these kids need your protection.
Kay Stephens is the co-author of Cyberslammed: Understand, Prevent, Combat and Transform the Most Common Cyberbullying Tactics, published this year and sponsored by Time Warner Cable. She has been doing presentations to Maine schools on specific cyberbullying threats and how to understand, prevent, combat and transform them. She is also the editor of FTCTC's monthly teen-focused feature, Sound Off, designed to increase the number of youth who have one of the protective factors that helps keep kids out of trouble—recognition for pro-social involvement. To see more posts oncyberbullying, visit Kay Stephens on The Pen Bay Pilot.