Friday, August 14, 2020
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Florida girl, 12, commits suicide after cyberbullying

The apparent suicide of Rebecca Anne Sedwick of Lakeland, Fla., a 12-year-old cyberbullying victim, has been widely reported from local newspapers and TV stations to the Huffington Post.

Before her death, she had been bullied for about a year, authorities said. She used websites like Ask.fm, on which we reported and took some heat, that are based in other countries and don’t necessarily respond fully to information requests from US law enforcement. Then on Monday, she messaged a North Carolina boy she had met on social media, saying “I’m jumping,” climbed a tower at an abandoned cement plant, and jumped to her death.

This is yet another warning to parents about the dangers of cyberbullying on social media, especially on free sites. In Rebecca’s case, the bullying started with girls at her school, Crystal Lake Middle School, over a boyfriend issue. It had gotten so bad that her mother reported the bullying but took her out of school and began homeschooling her earlier this year. In the fall, Rebecca started back at a new middle school, but the online bullying continued, thanks to sites like Ask.fm.

The middle school drama cost the 12-year-old girl her life, the Jacksonville Observer reports. “Girls can get pretty catty as kids,” the paper quoted Sheriff Grady Judd as saying. “The system cannot manage all that cattiness. I truly believe the school system tried but we don’t live in a perfect world.”

CBS News, on the other hand, reported that school officials at Crystal Lake are being blamed, by Rebecca’s mother, for not doing enough to stop the bullying. But whether they did or not, however those facts play out in the months that follow, Rebecca is still gone.

For our purposes, the facts are still coming in, and it would be premature and perhaps a little irresponsible to lay the blame at the feet of school officials. I post this story only to advise parents to heed warning signs, such as a 12-year-old searching for questions like “How many Advil do you have to take to die?” on Google. Also, parents have to look at some of the cyberbullying itself, which for Rebecca contained questions like “Why are you still alive?” and “Why don’t you just kill yourself?”

Seeing these messages on a very public site like Ask.fm (see our earlier story, here) is horrifying. We would never say most of these things to someone’s face, but in an online environment, when it’s just a middle school girl in her room with her computer or smartphone, the rules change all of a sudden. As a bully, she perceives no immediate threat to her safety, such as a kid punching her out for saying something offensive. Inhibitions vaporize. And cyberbullying leads to another suicide, the headlines scream.

I consider cyberbullying worse than actual bullying on the playground for a few reasons:

  • Cyberbullying is more public
  • The content of the bully’s message is harsher and more insensitive

The fact that cyberbullying is public may open an opportunity for programmers at social media sites. Perhaps messages can be analyzed before they’re posted to the public for content that might flag a status update as a cyberbullying candidate. Then, a real human can step in. Perhaps that would be too invasive of our privacy, but kids are killing themselves over these messages. Do nothing, and these companies run the risk of people avoiding them—and telling their kids to avoid them.

When I wrote about the cyberbullying I had witnessed on the Ask.fm site, I was criticized by the subject of my story for dragging her into it without her consent. “I know how to be safe on the internet and I know how to control myself and my emotions, as you have questioned my answer to where I said I forget all about it once I log off, start believing it because it’s true,” she hollered at me. But not all teenage girls have that kind of emotional strength.

And after I removed the girl’s identity, the story still stood. Examples of sexual harassment of 15-year-olds, as I reported, or cattiness of 12-year-olds, as reported in Rebecca’s story, are all examples of the kind of uninhibited cyberbullying that plagues many of these sites. We need to stop this.

Paul Katula is the executive editor of the Voxitatis Research Foundation, which publishes this blog. For more information, see the About page.

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