Culture Challenge of the Week: Cyber Hate

Rebecca Hagelin

9/17/2013 12:01:00 AM - Rebecca Hagelin

Rebecca Ann Sedwick was only 12 years old. But she hurled herself off of the top of an abandoned building last week in Florida in order to free herself from the daily torment of her peers.

The bullies’ weapons? Words. But their cruelty towards Rebecca didn’t happen on the playground, in the lunchroom, or next to the school lockers. It happened on social media, in particular through an app called Ask.fm. The app allows users to send anonymous comments to others over the Internet, making it a place where bullies flourish.

According to the local sheriff investigating her death, Rebecca was “terrorized” by bullies using social media. She received messages, apparently from a group of about 15 other middle schoolers, that repeatedly told her she was ugly and wished she would die. Months earlier, Rebecca’s mother had learned of the bullying, changed her daughter’s school, and shut down Rebecca’s social media accounts. But after a successful start at a new school, Rebecca got her phone back and the torment began again. (Social media knows no geographic limitation.) This time, she didn’t tell her mom. And the consequences were fatal.

Even worse, Rebecca’s death follows on a string of other suicides apparently triggered by relentless cruelty delivered through apps, chats, and texts.

The death of any child is always a tragedy - it’s a life cut short, with dreams unlived, and a future never realized. And when a child commits suicide, the tragedy is compounded. Her death speaks of despair, of cries unheard and wounds unhealed. When a child’s suicide occurs because other children goaded her into it, however, it’s more than a tragedy.

It’s an outrage.

So what are we going to do about it?

How to Save Your Family: Be Your Child’s Guard and Guide

Authorities in Florida are investigating Rebecca’s death, under Florida anti-bullying provisions. But the law provides for schools to enforce the anti-bullying codes and specifies no remedy. In Rebecca’s case, police may look to laws against harassment and stalking in general.

But while this horrific death deserves a thorough investigation, it's really up to parents to curb their kids raunchy behavior. When we expect the government or police to begin policing our children's language, we will absolutely wake up one day to discover that we have given them the power to silence not only cruelty, but religious and other expression as well. Moms and dads must take the lead on producing decent kids, as always. The cyber age provides no excuse for lax parenting.

Schools have always had mean kids. And girls seem to engage more often in adolescent drama over boys, status, and who-said-what (the ‘mean girls’ phenomenon). But cyber-bullying raises the stakes. It’s different. It’s not just an updated method of schoolyard bullying. Cyber-bullying happens, most often, ‘off the radar’ of adults. It’s silent, hidden, and relentless. It happens over phone or computer apps (“applications,” often downloadable for free), through Facebook, messaging or chats, and texts, so parents have to be more diligent than ever in keeping our own communications flowing with our children.

Many adolescents keep their phones and computers locked by passcode, to keep their friends (or parents) from snooping. But that wall of privacy often becomes a hazard. The barrier that keeps protective parents from discovering teens’ love interests (or misbehavior) also keeps them from discovering teens’ cyber-bullying secrets. Are they victims? Perpetrators? Too often, parents discover those facts only after a tragedy occurs and police cyber-sleuths unlock the secrets of the phone or computer.

Give your child a phone on the condition that you get all his or her passwords. And do spot checks. As your child gets older, and depending on circumstances, you can relax your oversight according to your best judgment. But your children need to understand that parents have a call from God to guide and protect them—and to exercise that call requires knowledge. Because of your maturity and life experience, you will spot trouble brewing long before they will. So don’t flinch. Your children need your guidance, so step up and give it.

Once cyber-bullying starts, it’s a difficult problem for parents to address, not only because it’s hard to spot (unless a child tells the parent) but also because the remedy is a double-edged sword. Shutting down the harassment often requires shutting down a child’s entire electronic presence. But shutting down a child’s electronic communications also risks pushing a child into social isolation and cutting off healthy contact with friends. The most important thing is to protect your child from immediate harm. But if their electronic communications must go dark, step in and arrange social support through healthy activities or old-fashioned face-to-face time with friends.

The best solution is to be proactive. Know what’s going on and follow your instincts. If your child seems moody, unhappy, or withdrawn, don’t ignore it. Open the conversation, investigate their electronics, or get professional help. And on the flip side, let your children know that it is not just “unacceptable” for them to harass, tease, or bully others, it’s morally wrong. Don’t tolerate it.

The cyber-age is just the latest frontier in a long-line of parental challenges through the ages of time. While we morph and expand our tactics to combat the pitfalls of the new technologies while embracing the good, let's also renew our resolve to raise our children by timeless principles and values. Teaching the biblical virtues of love, honesty, kindness, gentleness, self control and generosity still creates thoughtful human beings who thrive, regardless of the era in which we live.