Bullying has always been around. So it’s easy for the older generation, looking back on school days, to dismiss the problem as a rite of passage and a normal part of life. Children will be children. And sometimes children can be exceptionally cruel, they argue.
But what a younger generation understands all too well is that bullying is different, insidious, and perhaps even more sinister, in the age of social media. Texting, Snapchat and Twitter leave victims of cyberbullying with few places to escape. Nasty rumors, ugly and hateful comments and taunts take an ever more painful and humiliating turn when hundreds witness it.
And because some cyberbullies are deft at concealing their identities, there are few things parents or authorities can do.
As we report today, cyberbullying can take many forms. It can happen on personal cellphones, or on any one of dozens of social media websites. Popular websites like Facebook, Instagram and Twitter — common forums for harassment and public shaming — have more than 1 billion monthly users between them. They are common sources of bullying against children, experts say.
So is Snapchat, where pictures and messages can be sent, only to disappear in a matter of seconds.
Statistics are alarming. A recent study by Florida Atlantic University’s Cyberbullying Research Center, which used a national sample of 5,600 children between the ages of 12 and 17, found that 34 percent had experienced cyberbullying, and 17 percent of those surveyed had been bullied within 30 days of taking the survey.
A far greater number, 70 percent of the students surveyed, said someone had spread rumors about them online. Two-thirds of students who experienced cyberbullying said it affected their ability to learn and made them feel unsafe.
We also know cyberbullying can be deadly.
Much of the inspiration for our series, “Bullied to the Brink,” came from the tragic death of 18-year-old Brandy Vela, who fatally shot herself in front of her family after months of being harassed and stalked on social media. The cyberbullies put up fake Facebook accounts and posted about the Texas City High School senior’s weight and looks, her family said. When one cruel Facebook page was deleted, another would be created.
And we were also haunted by the story of 16-year-old David Molak, of San Antonio, who committed suicide after enduring months of cyberbullying. His family said the day he killed himself, he’d been the butt of cruel text messages sent by his peers.
“For people that get their satisfaction out of dimming the lights of others, they need to know that sometimes those lights just don’t come back on,” his father, Matt Molak, told reporters.
We’re encouraged that adults are paying attention. School districts, including Texas City’s, are having open discussions about cyberbullying and its serious repercussions.
And state legislators are considering new laws to regulate how schools deal with bullies online.
It’s good lawmakers and educators are listening and working to make changes. We should all be paying attention to this health and safety crisis.
We hope this series makes parents get more involved and watch for signs that their children are being bullied either physically or through social media or texting.
But we’ll take it a step further and ask adults to lead by example. One reason social media is such a villain in the bully story is because it’s so very easy to sit behind a keyboard and forget that our targets are real people. Consider the January 2015 episode of “This American Life” titled “If You Don’t Have Anything Nice to Say, SAY IT IN ALL CAPS.”
“It’s safe to say whatever you want on the internet; nobody will know it’s you. But that same anonymity makes it possible for people to say all the awful things that make the internet such an annoying and sometimes frightening place.”
Sometimes, people don’t even try to conceal their identity. A casual scan of Facebook shows how comfortable people are lobbing caustic remarks at whomever they please and how easily and quickly cyber mobs can form.
Adults years ago created a cyberworld in which people feel utterly free to attack others for anything they don’t like or disagree with. Professional athletes are subjects of serious taunting by Twitter users. And so are fans.
In 2015, former baseball star Curt Schilling threatened to take legal action over vulgar and hateful tweets by adult men toward his 17-year-old daughter.
Remember when actress Ashley Judd, an avid Kentucky basketball fan, tweeted in March 2015 she thought Arkansas was playing dirty? For that, she was the target of threats of sexual violence and vulgar name-calling.
If adults are so detached and feel so liberated to use social media as a platform for bullying, why wouldn’t children?
Such questions are what we should be asking and answering as we try to put a stop to cyberbullying and these senseless, tragic deaths.
• Laura Elder