Words can be deadly: Bullies can go digital, beyond the classroom

“Sticks and stones can break your bones, but words can never hurt you.”

I have always hated that fable. Words do hurt.

Words can kill.

Fifteen-year-old Phoebe Prince chose to take her own life rather than deal with what has been characterized as “relentless physical and cyber bullying.”

Prince was besieged in school, via text message, and on the social networking site Facebook, for days before she took her own life, according to the Boston Herald. She couldn’t “leave it at school” because the pervasive and invasive nature of the Web brought the bullies into her phone, her home, and her head.

Prince’s death is being called a “tragic accident.” This is another lie. There was nothing “accidental” about this child’s anguish.

It was planned and perpetrated by her high school peers with one thing in mind: to do grave harm.

Sadly, it worked.

Common

Prince is hardly alone. An 11-year-old boy took his own life by hanging himself after becoming a victim of “intense taunting.” A 13-year-old Missouri girl committed suicide after being harassed via MySpace by a grown woman.

The woman, a neighbor, “befriended” the teen girl under the guise of being a 14-year-old boy only to call her demeaning names before writing “the world would be a better place without you.”

A young start

As someone who spends an inordinate amount of time online and was an “early adapter” to social networking (I well remember when I could go make lunch while I waited for a blistering 28k dial-up connection to get me online so I could file a column), I was shocked to discover how little I really know about social networking in the hands of younger children.

Did you know that children as young as 8 and 9 years old have Facebook profiles?

Did you know that nearly every child who has access to online messaging such as Facebook, MySpace, and cellular texting has reported some instance of harassment or negative activity via those devices in the previous year?

Off-line. If you are patting yourself on the back for keeping your child off-line, let me apprise you of one important fact. Just saying no to the Internet does not actually protect your child from the Internet.

Saying, “well, just don’t go online’ does little if a child is greeted at school with, “did you see what everyone is saying about you online?”

A tiny little camera phone no bigger than an index card can do grave damage if it’s used to snap — and distribute — locker room photos of that kid that “nobody” or “everybody” likes.

Cyber bullying, it should be noted, knows no social barriers. Prince was reported to be a “pretty and popular girl.”

Mean

Most savvy schools claim to have anti-bullying programs in place even as the Facebook streams of their student body routinely contain questionable comments.

Texts, message boards, and “chat logs” show lengthy transcripts containing comments of a personal nature on classmate’s appearance and abilities — or lack thereof.

What is touted as “fun and games” online appears, all too often, to be little “fun” at all.

Imagine being tagged as “the nerd” in a round-robin “tag your friends” game?

Imagine that a random quiz pairs your name with off-the-wall questions such as “what would you do if you were stuck in a room with Kymberly Foster Seabolt?” and your peers replies ranged from “jump out a window” to “smother her.”

Spreading the word

I concede that at some level “kids are kids” and we gossiped and shared notes and comments, not always flattering, about each other back in the day. I daresay, however, that it was difficult to get any real lasting traction from passing torn out sheets of notebook paper around sixth period study hall.

Nowadays you can be slammed on Facebook and your entire peer group (and grandma too!) knows about it instantly.

To date, most of the “instruction” I’ve read concerning keeping children safe online involves telling kids how to avoid the dangerous “unknown predator.”

This is valuable, even as it tells kids to be afraid of something that may not happen, while we potentially ignore the almost inevitable possibility they will deal with online harassment by someone they know.

Today’s bully

Today’s bully doesn’t have to be particularly strong, smart, or clever (in fact we know that a hallmark of bullies is they are rarely any of these things). Today’s bully need only know how to type — barely.

As a parent, I realize that we are ultimately responsible for the behavior of our kids, and most will manage that responsibility well, presuming we get a heads-up to the possibilities that are out there.

Remember, sticks and stone may break your bones, but words can break your heart.

(Kymberly Foster Seabolt would like to see Internet 101 adapted as a class in every educational institution. She welcomes comments c/o lifeoutloud@comcast.net; P.O. Box 38, Salem, OH 44460, or http://kymberlys.blogspot.com.)

About the Author

Warm, witty and just a wee bit warped, Kymberly Foster Seabolt is a native of Kent, Ohio, who survived childhood exposure to disco and grew up to marry and move to the country. Her column weaves her special brand of humor with poignant, entertaining, and honest portrayals of parenting, marriage, and real life. She currently lives in northeastern Ohio with her husband, two children, two dogs, two cats, and numerous dust bunnies who wish to remain nameless. More Stories by Kymberly Foster Seabolt

2 Comments

  1. Adam Blum says:

    Hey Kymberly-

    One of the most insidious things about cyber-bullying is the fact that a kid who’s been targeted can’t easily escape the persecution. Bullies can relentlessly torment someone anywhere at anytime.

    Pheobe’s story is heartbreaking. While childhood suicide is very rare, it highlights the severity of a problem that tens of thousands of children live with.

    Yes, words are powerful. But the power they have is the power we give them. That realization will save other children from making the tragic choice that Pheobe did.

  2. I couldn’t agree more Adam.

    Unfortunately, even ADULTS have a hard time shaking off “mean words.” We can know that the source is envy or insecurity but still it stings. I think it is generally ever so much more difficult for younger people to shake it off. The emotional harm lasts long after a physical wound would have healed.

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