Amanda Todd, Cyberbullying, and Suicide
By now, most people are familiar with the Amanda Todd tragedy. The 15-year old from British Columbia, Canada posted a cry-for-help video on YouTube using note cards to detail the torment she endured from classmates and strangers in the wake of a revealing (topless) video chat photo being released to her Facebook friends and others by an extorting stranger. She got depressed and anxious and experimented with drugs and alcohol. She cut herself and had at least two previous attempts at suicide. People commented on her Facebook page that she should try harder to kill herself: “I hope she dies this time and isn’t so stupid.” Unfortunately, on October 10th, 2012, she did.
Many students have written out note cards and taken to YouTube to tell their story (Alye, Jessica, Kegan, Kate, and perhaps most famously, Jonah). These are often referred to as “If You Really Knew Me” or “secrets” videos and feature young people exposing their souls in a very public, but still somewhat private way. I mean, the reality is that most of these videos are viewed only a handful of times and very few have garnered as much attention as Amanda Todd’s has. My fear is that others who are struggling with the common (and not-so-common) trials that accompany the teenage years will feel that suicide is the only way to bring full attention to their struggles.
My heart breaks when I read story after story of teens who felt suicide was the only answer to their situation. Just a few days ago a 15-year old Staten Island, New York girl jumped into the path of an oncoming train (to her death) after apparently being “tortured” by other students. Earlier in the week she tweeted: “I can’t. I’m done. I give up.” Less than a month ago it was a 16-year old East Hampton, New York student who ended his life after being bullied, reportedly due to his sexual orientation. There are just too many of these horrendous stories to keep up with.
Research has shown that experience with bullying (whether as a target or bully) is linked to heightened risk for suicide. A recent review of 41 incidents that were reported in the media where cyberbullying appeared to be the cause of a teen’s suicide showed that experience with bullying was just one of many factors that likely led to the teen’s death. This finding is consistent with what we have found in our work over the years. In our paper published in 2010, we found a small, but statistically significant increase in risk for suicidal thoughts and attempts among students who were bullied or cyberbullied (and among those who did the bullying or cyberbullying). But the experience with bullying (in whatever form) explained only a small amount of the variation in suicidal behaviors. That is, there are other factors that we weren’t able to account for in that study that were also related to suicide. There are, to be sure, many challenges that teens are confronting on a day-to-day basis, and often these pile up to the point where some simply cannot take them any longer. In our paper, we concluded that “it is unlikely that experience with cyberbullying by itself leads to youth suicide. Rather, it tends to exacerbate instability and hopelessness in the minds of adolescents already struggling with stressful life circumstances.”
If you or someone you know is in such a place, please get help. Talk to an adult you can trust. Please. If you are the adult, connect with each of the students, children, or other young people in your life in a way that enables them to come to you in times of crisis. You could be their savior. Visit the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline website or call 1-800-273-TALK (8255) for emergency help. If only Amanda, or someone who cared about her, would have done the same.
Bullying and Peer Violence Videos as Teaching Tools?
A colleague sent me an article detailing how pictures and videos of bullying and other forms of violence posted online – student on student, or student on teacher – can actually be used as a “teachable tool” and to “wake everyone up.” Parents can sit down with youth and watch them together, and convey lessons about appropriate and inappropriate ways to deal with conflict. I actually don’t agree with this. A recent discussion among other colleagues has focused on whether video content that ostensibly shocks the conscience can be used to teach adolescents about wrong and right behaviors. Research and anecdotal accounts have shown, though, that images (shown to accompany the stories of victims) of drunk driving crashes do not largely deter DWIs long-term (see here, here, and here). This is perhaps because the content is not viewed in a serious, grave light – but are rather casually dismissed as commonplace or irrelevant since youth tend to be desensitized to violence due to television, movies, and the Internet. It also may be because of an invincibility complex among teens, or an inability to fully relate to and internalize the possibility of it happening to them.
I think that since youth see physical fights often (as compared to adults) – either on school campuses or in the neighborhood – that seeing them captured in video and posted online will not really strike an alarming and dissonant chord in their minds. Kids look up these kinds of videos on YouTube for entertainment. It won’t surprise them. It won’t deter them. It won’t all of the sudden convince them that punches and kicks are completely unacceptable ways to resolve conflict.
What do you all think?
Cyberbullying Your Own Kids to Punish Them
Canadian Cyberbullying Educator and Speaker Lissa Albert and I have been chatting about some parents engaging in controversial and arguably questionable behavior to “send a message” to their teenagers about appropriate and inappropriate behavior. These instances have gone viral, and Lissa has done a great job of providing a backdrop of this practice as well as detailing why we just don’t support these kinds of responses. Her writeup is below – I encourage you to share with us your thoughts. Also, feel free to contact her with any followup! Here we go:
There is a new, troubling trend emerging in our digital world; it blends social media and parental discipline. And it’s more disturbing than one might believe at first glance. It’s even been given a name: “cyber-discipline”.
The first such incident occurred in February 2012, when the news outlets carried the story of a man in North Carolina, who decided to discipline his 15-year-old daughter for having complained about her parents, on Facebook. She blocked her parents from seeing it, and used belligerent, curse-filled rhetoric. She was upset at all the chores she had to do, and complained about it. Was she mouthy? Yes. Obscene language used? Yes. Did she cross the line? Yes. But at the age of 15, is she still learning about appropriate behavior? Yes.
Tommy Jordan’s way of handling his daughter was to post a video on YouTube, entitled “Facebook Parenting: For the Troubled Teen”. The video begins with the camera on him, as he explains that he will be providing advice for parents who have to deal with kids misbehaving on Facebook. He addresses his daughter, telling her how he fixed her computer and spent money to do so, and came across a post on Facebook she obviously didn’t think he’d see. He reads the post which is what can only be described as a typical teen complaint about having to clean up and do chores. As he reads, he mocks her words. He then addresses the things she said, point by point, talking directly to her – albeit via YouTube.
When he is done, the camera moves to show the computer in the grass and dirt. He says, “That right there is your laptop.” He then moves a gun into the video and says, “This right here is my .45,” and proceeds to shoot the laptop – nine times. He counts the bullets, telling her she’ll have to pay him back the dollar each one cost.
He posted the video to YouTube, it went viral, and the father has gone on the talk show circuit. It also prompted many discussions about how social media was used as well as this type of discipline. The debate ranged from the insinuated violence, to the over-reactive nature of the discipline, to the utter waste of an expensive piece of technology. This father got revenge on what his daughter did; it is never right for a parent to get revenge on their child. He stated, in an interview, “She put it on Facebook, I put it on Facebook.” Why was it wrong for his daughter to swear and behave immaturely online but not wrong for him to do the same in a public video denigrating her?
Another case of blatant cyberbullying came to light this past week. In Akron, Ohio, Denise Abbott decided her 13-year-old daughter Ava needed disciplining for airing her gripes on Facebook, and used the same venue to exact her parental “justice.” She used Photoshop to place a red X over her daughter’s mouth in a picture of Ava. She added the text: “I do not know how to keep my (mouth shut). I am no longer allowed on Facebook or my phone. Please ask why. My mom says I have to answer everyone that asks.”
She uploaded the photo to her own Facebook account as well as to her daughter’s, making it the cover photo (the very large banner-type picture the new Timeline format incorporates) as well as the small thumbnail profile photo used as an inset (see photo). To make matters worse, the local network news did a story on what had been done, and while 13-year-old Ava does not appear in the story, her photo does. This prompted national news to pick up the story as well. Denise Abbott says, “You have to adapt your parenting skills with the times.”
The news story made the Internet, and has – of course – gone viral. Denise Abbott has also gone on the “Today” show, and may yet appear on other shows. A simple Google search reveals that this story has gone around the world, with news items from France, Portugal, Spain, Brazil, and Germany, and probably more countries than can be listed in this space.
Both Tommy Jordan and Denise Abbott have said that had they known they would receive such worldwide attention, they might have rethought their actions. Surely Denise must have heard about the backlash Tommy Jordan got; and yet, she did what she did anyway, as well as invite local news media into her home to cover the story. It’s important to note that it’s always too late for regrets, once it’s on the Internet. This will never be erased even as the headlines fade. Abbott has said that she never expected this to go viral the way it did. Jordan says the same. This reinforces the need for parents to understand the viral nature of the Internet.
Tommy Jordan speaks directly to his daughter about his feelings regarding her Facebook posting; but he does so via video camera, posted on YouTube. Denise Abbott prefaced her actions by removing Ava’s phone and Facebook privileges. Both these parents seem to have the right ideas, the wrong methods. Instead of addressing their children’s behavior privately, at home, they – in essence – opened the walls of their living rooms to the world. And yet, they did so because they were upset that their children had done the very same thing! Hannah Jordan had complained using Facebook; Ava had used Facebook to speak disrespectfully about her mother but no details have been provided.
Both forms of discipline, in my opinion, went way overboard, but they also crossed an important line between home discipline and public degradation. Moreover, it seems these parents wanted some sort of public approval for getting their kids in line. That seems to take priority over getting the behavior changed; otherwise, why post it online? Why go on talk shows? Why not deal with their children in their homes, privately, and respectfully? Shouldn’t adults be the adults in these situations, and model positive behavior instead of reflect the very acts for which they are penalizing?
What is wrong with these types of disciplinary actions? Some thoughts:
- Parents have turned parental discipline into a world-stage event. It’s tantamount to putting one’s child on a stage, in a spotlight, pointing fingers to highlight what is actually normal teenage behavior, stating “look how badly my child behaved,” and inviting everyone on the Internet (and those watching on television) to do the same. It is a very strong example of cyberbullying, using technology and the platform of social media to humiliate and denigrate. It is not discipline at all, it is public shaming, and it is abusive. Various news stories have Ava saying she deserved it, but did Ava really feel that way or is she somehow feeling coerced to own up to it?
- It also opens doors for so many other parents to follow suit. On the site where the story first emerged online, there are countless comments from parents exclaiming, “I’m definitely going to do this when my kid acts up!” Polls (unscientific as they may be) on the various news outlets have shown an overwhelming majority of parents who believe that both Jordan AND Abbott acted appropriately. It provides dangerous precedents for more cyberbullying behavior on the part of parents, the very people who are supposed to be protecting their kids from the world, not exposing and shaming them.
- This trend also begs the question: what will parents like Denise Abbott do when their children commit a second, or more egregious infraction? They will – we know they will. Kids misbehave. It’s normal. As they grow, they test their wings. What will she do when Ava uses harsher words, or decides to skip a day at school, or any other numerous known teenage rule-breaking behaviors? The bar is already advanced on how far she will go to discipline Facebook rudeness. What comes next? Where does she go from here? She has already said, on NBC, that she will do something similar again if that’s what it takes. That, in itself, is deeply alarming. And if she has to do it again – did it really work in the first place? There is no magic disciplinary action. Kids – like adults – learn through repetition and maturity. We will all make mistakes. We may make the same mistakes more than once. That’s human nature.
Some questions to ponder:
- Why is it “creative parenting” when an adult carries this out but cyberbullying when kids target one another? If this had been another kid, the story would have been about cyberbullying. Abbott may even have called out the other teen who was humiliating her daughter. Yet somehow, these parents – and their supporters from far and wide – believe their actions are for the betterment of their children. The very example of the power in cyberbullying is intrinsic in these stories. Abbott’s actions, in her mind, are justified because she is the parent, the authority – the one with the power, as opposed to another child carrying out this action, in which case she probably would have been incensed that her daughter had been targeted and victimized.
- As well, is it not dangerous to call this “creative”, which carries a positive connotation? Almost every news story has referred to it as “creative parenting”. We must change that perception.
- If the behavior does change, is it because the child has learned a lesson? Or merely because the child has been so intimidated by his/her public shaming (and perhaps emails or posts from strangers) that call further attention to their rule breaking? Ava’s response via email stated that she had been rude to her mother but that she will think twice next time because “It made me realize that I didn’t want my picture on there like that because all of my friends were asking me what happened and what I did.” She doesn’t say that she realized it was wrong to be rude to her mother, only that she did not want to be humiliated again. Lesson learned? Perhaps. Punishment feared? Yes. Parental discipline is not to instill fear of the punishment; it is to teach a change in behavior due to understanding of why the behavior needs changing. I don’t believe we’re seeing that in Ava’s statement.
- With so many bullycides and cyberbullycides in our headlines, do we really want to see cyber-discipline become the acceptable, notable norm? Will more “creative” solutions for parents to use social media to shame their children, in the most public forum possible, emerge if this is not addressed? And if so, is it not frightening to think of what other parents may do? Those with true abusive streaks have the potential to harm their children beyond the pale.
- Denise Abbott, in follow-up stories, even says, “When you put everything on Facebook, you have to realize there is a consequence for all of your actions.” Does Denise realize that the consequence is now worldwide reaction to her actions on Facebook? And that consequence is not only negative toward her, but encouraging of others to follow in her footsteps? How many more kids will we see highlighted on the news as the targets of “creative discipline” and how many will already be experiencing bullying or cyberbullying at the expense of their self-esteem? Must we get a tragic wake-up call before cyber-discipline is finally put into its proper category – that of cyberbullying?
The story has gotten a lot of press, and those supporting the actions of both these parents seem to be unaware of how cyberbullying is inherent in both cases. How can we prevent more children from the cyber equivalent of stockades in a public square?
It’s time to get proactive. Spread the word that cyberbullying doesn’t just “look like” inflammatory texts in emails, text messages, Facebook or Twitter posts. Spread the word that cyberbullying takes many forms, and we must train everyone involved (parents, teachers, students, and bystanders) not only to recognize cyberbullying but to stand up in defense of victims, especially when those victims are being targeted by their parents. Harsh? Not when you look at the analysis of the behavior: social media used as a tool to publicly out a misbehaving teen. Whether it is parent or peer, this is cyberbullying. And it’s up to us to make sure cyber-discipline does not become sanctioned cyberbullying.
Cyberbullying and the Right to Feel Safe at School
Evidently, the waters of cyberbullying case law are still murky. Due to variability in opinions and perspectives across jurisdictions and adjudicators, clear precedent is still sometimes elusive. Consider the following case from late 2009 from a California District Court (08-cv-03824, J.C. v. Beverly Hills Unified School District), in which an eighth-grader was cyberbullied through the posting of a YouTube video created by peers denigrating her as “spoiled,” “a brat,” and a “slut.” The target tearfully reported this to her counselor, and indicated strongly that she was upset, humiliated, and did not feel able to go to class and focus on school. The counselor discussed the matter with administration as well as with school district attorneys, classified the behavior as “cyberbullying,” and the offending girl who posted the video online was suspended for two days. Her family decided to sue, and took the case to federal court on the grounds that her First Amendment right to free speech had been violated.
Even though extant case law seems to support corrective action if a target is unable to feel safe and supported to learn without distractions of harassment within a school environment, the federal judge in this case ruled that school authorities overstepped their bounds. This decision was based on the fact that the school could not prove that the offending speech and actions caused a “substantial disruption” of school activities or goals. Moreover, the ruling judge stated that “the court cannot uphold school discipline of student speech simply because young persons are unpredictable or immature, or because, in general, teenagers are emotionally fragile and may often fight over hurtful comments.”
This is particularly disconcerting to me. The judge completely disregarded the emotional and psychological well-being of the target in this case, even though any adult who serves youth or works for the best interests of youth is taught that they must not view the internalization of harm in a critical manner, but must empathize with it. That is, adults must not discount the reality of pain experienced by adolescents through their experiences with bullying or cyberbullying, because this casts blame on the victims themselves. This small-minded mentality is, in part, why we have teenagers who kill themselves – because they feel that their viewpoint is not appreciated but rather trivialized and discarded.
Demonstration of “substantial [schoolwide] disruption” is a sufficient clause to uphold school discipline of cyberbullying behaviors that are initiated off campus. However, it is not a necessary clause because there are other aggravating factors that impel student disciplinary sanction by schools. One primary factor is the harm personally and subjectively experienced by victimized youth. Without question, the ability of the victim in this case to learn in a safe and secure environment at school was substantially disrupted. But apparently that wasn’t enough.
In essence, the judge asserts that the adolescent victim in this case – and others like her – should have tougher skin, and should not allow hurtful comments to bother her so much. He summarily dismisses the gravity of her pain in one fell swoop, and bases his decision on an impersonal aspect of the case, rather than the very real, very visceral effect that cyberbullying had on a young girl.
Finally, the victim in this case is being denied the benefits of, and is subjected to discrimination under, a federally-funded educational program (the public school), which undermines her civil rights. As such, I would not at all be surprised if this case goes to the appellate level and is overturned. In fact, I am hopeful that it will be.
offline assault, cyberbullying via YouTube, and deterrence
This story, which involves a digitally-recorded video of three teens throwing a 32-ounce soda on a girl working the window at a Taco Bell drive-thru, is a newer iteration of cyberbullying which we’re seeing more often. The boys posted the video on YouTube, which led to repeated embarrassment and humiliation for the girl. She was bold and savvy enough to discover the identity of the boys and report them to law enforcement – which deserves commendation. I only wish that the punishment handed down by the judge was better conceived. I think that shaming in general can be highly-effective when dealing with real-world wrongdoing simply because we care a great deal about our social standing and the way that we’re perceived by others. I just don’t know if shaming is an effective sanction when dealing with online harassment because the culture as a whole hasn’t collectively shunned and denounced the act (like the real-world offenses of child abuse and rape have been denounced). There is not really any negative stigma associated with cyberbullying in our society, and so shaming is not the best punitive option.