A 16-year old boy who lived in my community and was a sophomore in high school killed himself last week. His older brother posted on Facebook that he’d been bullied online; he was asked to join a chat group, made fun of, then uninvited minutes later. Apparently, this kind of torture had been going on awhile. The heartbreaking post, which has gone viral, expressed the brother’s frustration with social media and the failure of schools and families to stop this sort of online bullying. I didn’t know this boy or his family, but his story is now familiar to practically everyone in my city of over 1 million. It’s even made national news. I couldn’t help but think it’s because so many of us probably whispered, upon hearing about it, “There but for the grace of God go I.” Those of us who are parents have no doubt witnessed instances of “bullying” behavior delivered via the internet, and witnessed the pain inflicted upon our own children. To a parent, it is incomprehensible. Why would classmates pick out our seemingly innocent child and decide to begin attacking this person? Is it because our child is naive, unaware of social mores in the community, different either intellectually or physically, immature in some ways, insecure, shy, unwilling or unable to speak up and defend him or herself? Probably not, judging from the young man who died last week, who was cute, friendly, outgoing, an Eagle Scout. I think it stems not so much from the attributes or personality of the bullied as from the mindset of the bully; from a longstanding belief that he or she is somehow better or more entitled than others in their community. Someone who already has a following online or in school, and can create a herd mentality that rallies others toward his or her cause of torturing another student.
All of us are asking what can be done to prevent another heartbreaking tragedy. The school district formed a task force, the police department is investigating, friends of one of the brothers started a Go Fund Me page that has already raised thousands of dollars. But, really, how can we stop this online bullying? We feel so helpless when it comes to our kids’ use of social media. The online world is a strange, new one that we haven’t quite figured out yet. It allows kids to create unreal personas and fictional life stories which prey upon the insecurities of adolescent brains. We can’t even keep up with all the new apps and forms of communicating. But, we must check out our children’s Facebook pages, Snapchat and Twitter accounts. If we see questionable posts authored by our kids, we must take away their internet access, as difficult as that may be. And hold back on gifting our kids with phones in the first place. It may be convenient, but do middle schoolers need phones with unlimited access to the internet? Let’s put that off as long as possible. It’s time for schools to get actively involved. Admittedly, school personnel don’t know about some of this because parents are too scared or embarrassed to admit it’s their child who is being bullied, fearful that reporting will only make it worse. School districts need to stop merely lecturing about bullying and do something to root out and punish the perpetrators. Zero tolerance for cyber-bullying should be our new battle cry at home and in school.
Since it is, seemingly, impossible to control what goes on via social media outlets, let’s get back to things we can control. As parents, we need to realize that this bullying behavior often stems from a feeling of entitlement, superiority, clique-ishness, which often begins at home. We must teach our young children respect and empathy of others, and acceptance of those who are different from us. And, we need to model those attributes by inviting that kid who sits in the back of the cafeteria to our kid’s birthday party. When our children are older, we need to stop hosting parties and after-parties that are designed to be exclusive, that are meant to exclude certain groups. Aren’t we sending our children the message that they’re better than those kids who are aren’t invited? I visit weekly with a group of 7th grade girls in the cafeteria and recently noticed that one of their friends, who was the only white girl at the table, didn’t sit with them anymore. When I asked where she was, a girl matter of factly answered, “Oh, her mom thinks we’re a bad influence on her, so she moved tables.” Let’s not be that mom.
When a child is being mistreated by another child it can be heartbreaking and overwhelming for the parents, as well as the child. But we have lived long enough to know there will be an end to it someday. The years spent in middle school and high school are just fleeting moments in time that hardly matter in the grand scheme of a long life. College can be a wondrous place where young people can reinvent themselves, gain new friends, build self esteem and deal with less antagonism, meddling, and gossip. But kids, whose lives are lived mostly at school and online, can’t see this. Let’s all work together to help our kids get back into the “real world.” What if we all turned off our phones and put them away for hours at a time? Perhaps we could encourage our kids to use that time to interact with the underprivileged while volunteering, to enjoy the outdoors while walking, jogging, or biking, to encourage the reading of books with real heroes and heroines, to participate in our churches, to pray for those less fortunate, to spend time with adults whom they admire, including elderly friends or grandparents, to have regular dinners together? I know this sounds Pollyanna-ish, but isn’t it worth a try? I don’t know what else to suggest.