Sexts, Facebook, Cyberbullies, and Suicide

By: Katie Popper

A. The Problem

“‘Why are you still alive?’ ‘You’re ugly.’ ‘Can u die please?’”  These are just a few examples of the texts and other hateful messages twelve-year-old Rebecca Ann Sedwick received from some of her middle-school classmates over the past year.  Tragically, Rebecca took her own life last month.  After she sent text messages to two friends saying goodbye forever, changed her online username to “That Dead Girl,” and hid her cellphone and books under clothes in her room, Rebecca leaped off a platform at a Florida cement plant.  In today’s cyber-obsessed world, the drama, fear, and angst of middle school students – and their parents – have skyrocketed.  The dynamics of teenage life have changed, the number and power of tech-savvy bullies has multiplied, the sphere of potential victims has expanded, and the bullying once confined to the schoolyard has spread to the home and pretty much everywhere else that one can access the Internet or a phone.

Like many other parents facing such tragedy, Rebecca’s mother, Tricia Norman, was entirely unaware of the cruel messages sent to her young daughter’s cellphone and had no indication that her life was in danger until Rebecca had passed away.  In addition to grieving the loss of her child, Ms. Norman now “faces the frustration of wondering what else she could have done.”  Two girls were recently arrested in connection with Rebecca’s suicide.  Donna Witsell understands the frustrations of losing a child to cyberbully-related suicide; “Every time I see or I hear about another child committing suicide, I scream inside . . . I want to know when it is going to stop . . . . People need to get an awareness . . . [people] need to see the reality [of] what these kids are going through.”    Like Ms. Norman, Donna is a mother mourning the death of a child.  The loss of her thirteen-year-old daughter Hope has pushed Donna to pursue her new mission, preventing similar tragic teen deaths.  Hope committed suicide after months of relentless taunting and harassment at school and on MySpace.  Donna is now dedicated to teaching parents, students, educators, and politicians about the existence of cyberbullying and the very real dangers it creates for kids today.

Rebecca and Hope were just two examples out of millions of kids and teenagers worldwide victimized by today’s bullies who use new technology to extend the reach of their punches from the schoolyard to the home, or anywhere a person can access the Internet.

Media coverage of cyberbully-related suicides dates back to 2003, when a thirteen year‑old boy hung himself after being bullied online.  The number of yearly tragedies has continued to climb drastically each year since.  In 2005, a few states began to notice to problem and implement legislation to hold bullies accountable, but most states did not incorporate cyberbullying into law until several years and numerous tragedies later.

Legislatures began to take serious action to combat the problem in 2009 and 2010 after several highly publicized incidents incited public outcry.

In 2006, a thirteen year-old Missouri girl committed suicide after a former friend’s mother used a fake online profile to harass her.  A fifteen year-old Massachusetts girl, Phoebe Prince, killed herself in December 2009, just one year after immigrating to the U.S. from Ireland, after experiencing “horrific bullying” in the form of online messages and emails.  A former classmate claimed that “[s]omeone told her to go hang herself.”    While the source/classmate denied knowledge of the alleged bully’s identity, she explained that Phoebe “was getting bullied by some people . . . , there were [some] people talking about her and I guess she just didn’t like being hated.”

In 2010, the U.S. observed one of the most highly publicized cyberbullying-suicide cases to date with the death of Rutgers University freshman Tyler Clementi on September 22, 2010.  The Tyler Clementi Foundation describes his story:

At college Tyler became a victim of cyber-bullying. His privacy was invaded when his college roommate set up a webcam to spy on him. The roommate viewed him in an intimate act, and invited others to view this online. Tyler discovered what his abuser had done and that he was planning a second attempt. Viewing his roommate’s Twitter feed, Tyler learned he had widely become a topic of ridicule in his new social environment. He ended his life several days later by jumping off the George Washington Bridge. Tyler was eighteen years old.

Fast-forward to 2013, despite legislative efforts, the cyberbullying problem had not dissipated in the U.S. or abroad.

B. The Solution

The definition of cyberbullying varies from state to state, but can generally be defined as, “the willful and repeated use of cell phones, computers, and other electronic communication devices to harass and threaten others.”  Cyberbullies use the Internet and other electronic communication devices to “quickly spread messages and images to a vast audience” without having to reveal their true identities.  Anonymity means that cyberbullies are difficult to trace.  One Internet safety expert describes cyberbullying as torture for some kids, explaining that while “[t]he schoolyard bullies beat you up then you go home . . . [t]he cyberbullies beat you up at home, at grandma’s house, [and] wherever you’re connected to technology.”   Immediate legislative action is therefore imperative to contain the growth of cyberbullying attacks and limit the detrimental consequences they inflict on our society.

State legislatures have acted slowly to address cyberbullying.  This is likely because many view cyberbullying as a form of constitutionally protected speech, thus any legal limitation put on online expression must be assessed with great care.  Students do not leave their First Amendment rights at the schoolhouse door each morning.  However, the Supreme Court held in Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District, that student speech that “materially and substantially” disrupts school activities or that imposes “upon the rights of other students,” can be censored by the school without violation of the student’s First Amendment rights.  Sexually offensive speech, speech promoting drug use, hate speech, and bullying on school grounds have all been classified under the Tinker exception.  However, online harassment and stalking have not yet been addressed by the Supreme Court, therefore states and schools appear reluctant to act aggressively.

Currently, some state legislatures have cyberbullying laws requiring local school boards to create and implement their own cyberbullying policies.  Any such rules regulating speech need to be judged against the constitutional interests of students.  On one hand, there is a need for rules or laws that protect innocent online users and penalize the bad actors.  On the other hand, there is the powerful Constitutional right of an individual to speak openly in a public forum without revealing his or her identity.  Once there is clarity regarding the constitutional question, hopefully legislators and school boards will be more willing to address this type of reprehensible behavior.

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