The recent suicide of Rutgers University student Tyler Clementi has forced officials and families to focus even more specifically on the negative uses of the Internet. It has also brought references to previous cases of cyberbullying that have ended in tragedy, as parents struggle to protect their children from this escalating problem and lawmakers attempt to figure out just how to legislate in order to help.
13-year-old Hope Witsell committed suicide last year after months of cyberbullying through websites on MySpace and other forums with titles like “Hope Hater Page” and others, reported CNN. The girl said nothing to her parents about her plight, although they were made aware of the picture after an assistant principal called them into a meeting to tell them about its circulation.
Hope’s parents remained unaware, however, of the amount of bullying that their daughter was enduring, both at school and on the Internet. Hope’s mother learned after the fact that a school social worker had been worried enough about what she saw of the girl at school to make her sign a “no harm” contract, which is essentially a promise by the student to tell someone if she feels like she wanted to harm herself. The social worker did not make contact with the girl’s parents and tell them her concerns, and Hope committed suicide shortly thereafter.
As parents and officials struggle to find ways to stop cyberbullying, there are some methods that are recommended. Cellphones are a big way to limit opportunities for cyberbullying, according to a recent Fox News report. Making sure that you fully understand what your child’s cellphone is able to do and controlling what pictures your child sends with their phone, if any, is a big way to limit cyberbullying potential.
Hope Witsell’s case revolved around a topless photo that had circulated six different schools and the Internet, so don’t assume just because your child is young that they won’t transmit something private that could end up becoming harmful to them later. You can, if you want to go that route, talk to a service provider about disabling cellphone photos altogether.
Encouraging open conversation with your child is of huge benefit in general, let alone if your child is being bullied. Ask your child how school was, but also ask him what’s going on online. Be aware that websites like Facebook and MySpace aren’t actually aimed at young children, and that Facebook in particular keeps coming under fire for privacy issues, CS Monitor warns. Make sure your child understands that what’s on the Internet is permanent.
Schools can do a few things to help too. Fox recommends a student-run group, sort of like online hall monitors, that can keep track of what’s going on amongst the students online. Schools may also want to institute policies that add online etiquette and reputation programs to the regular curriculum.
Schools and parents must learn how to communicate with each other over bullying and cyberbullying. The children may be afraid or reluctant to talk to their parents, but schools and sometimes even parents are showing an equal reluctance to face the problem head-on as well. What could have happened in Hope’s case, if that school social worker kept calling until she found Hope’s parents? What if Hope’s parents had kept following up on the revelation that a topless picture of their daughter had circulated until they found out what was really going on? How many more times will we read about another of these tragedies, only to find out later that there were so many missed opportunities to help?
Randi Kaye, “How a cell phone picture led to girl’s suicide.” CNN.com
Kristin Hamill and Logan Burruss, “Student’s apparent suicide linked to webcast of sexual encounter.” CNN.com
Naimah Jabali-Nash, “Tyler Clementi Suicide: Additional Charges Possible for Rutgers Students.” CBSNews.com
Jeremy Kaplan, “Top Ten Ways Parents Can Protect Kids From Cyberbullying.” FoxNews.com
Alissa Figueroa, “Privacy Issues Hit FaceBook Again.” CSMonitor.com