Cyberbullying and our 21st century beasts

MCT Information ServicesSeptember 19, 2013 

If William Golding were writing his classic dystopian novel “Lord of the Flies” today, it might well be titled “Lord of the Mousepad.” For as we’ve learned from the suicide of preteen Rebecca Ann Sedwick, who succumbed to the relentless onslaught of online bullying, indifferent children armed with a keyboard and fueled by immaturity can inflict deadly cyber cruelty.

As many as 15 girls were at least aware of the abuse Rebecca endured beginning in November, when the 12-year-old was enrolled at Crystal Lake Middle School in Florida. First it was physical. Then the bullying went cyber.

A change of schools didn’t help. Neither did a brief effort at homeschooling. After all, the Internet knows no bounds. Neither does the pack mentality of fickle little girls on the hunt for vulnerable prey.

It was a steady stream of vitriol aimed at Rebecca over her cellphone and other online social media platforms. “You should die.” “Why don’t you go kill yourself?”

Earlier this month, a beautiful young girl with a life full of promise did just that. Rebecca, who had changed one of her screen names to “That Dead Girl,” climbed to the top of a tower at an abandoned cement plant and jumped.

It is perfectly understandable in the wake of such a heart-wrenching tragedy that Rebecca’s grief-stricken mother, Tricia Norman, would beat herself up over not fully seeing the signs of her daughter’s distress. Understandable, yes. But unfairly misplaced, too.

Norman had indeed monitored some of her daughter’s social media interactions. But she couldn’t capture them all. In the often-opaque world of preteen and adolescent life, there is a multitude of social media platforms that most adults (read: parents) don’t know about.

And therein can be found the sad paradox of today’s iWorld. Children are invariably far more adept at navigating social media venues. But many of these same children lack the intellectual maturity to comprehend the repercussions of abuse toward someone else.

We know that bullying is an intrinsic part of growing up. We know that cyberbullying is directed to at least 1 in 5 children. And we also know that it is vastly easier to engage in the character assassination of someone when you can anonymously hide behind a keyboard. Rebecca Sedwick was outnumbered. She never stood a chance.

It is easy to argue that all Rebecca had to do was disconnect, turn off her cellphone, delete the offending messages, ignore the trolls vilifying her and calling for her death.

Alas, 12-year-olds don’t think that way. This is a tender age, when all children yearn for social acceptance and crave to know how they are thought of, even if the result is less than flattering. Expecting Rebecca to go technologically dark was no more realistic than expecting her to forsake her allegiance to the boy band One Direction. Some things simply aren’t done.

We probably all feel like Tricia Norman. If only we could hold Rebecca in our arms and, with the wisdom that life experience offers, assure her that this too shall pass. Things will get better. But that moment has been lost to the heavens.

The sheriff’s office has hinted at pursuing stalking charges against some of the 15 minor girls who engaged in the cyber assault or knew of it and did nothing.

Perhaps Judd might be successful. But what the sheriff already must know is that the law in the area of cyberbullying is at best murky.

Regardless of what does or doesn’t happen in court, the 15 girls who played any role in the cyber persecution of Rebecca Sedwick will have to live the rest of their lives with her death on their consciences.

And they will learn that memory can be the most unforgiving bully of them all.

MCT Information Services

Daniel Ruth is an editorial writer at the Tampa Bay Times.

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