In September, Rebecca Sedwick, 12, jumped to her death at an abandoned cement site in Florida. In January, Viviana Aguirre, a 14-year-old in El Paso, endured as many Facebook attacks from her classmates as she could and hanged herself at home. These incidents highlight an increasingly familiar societal scenario: the combination of social media and bullying that ends in tragedy.
As a 16-year-old high school student, I know all too well how gadget-obsessed and social-network attached my generation is. This method of faceless interaction allows for a rapid transfer of communication that is as flippant as it is insensitive. Every student walks into school with a weapon—an iPhone that at any moment could be used to inflict pain through teasing or intimidation. As a delegate at the Anti-Bullying Conference last summer—during which representatives from Facebook to Yale to the White House convened to discuss the issues around and potential solutions to bullying—I find that this conveyance of words, publicly broadcast and published for peers to see, creates issues unique to teenagers of my generation. It is necessary to combat this ever-growing problem through educational outreach and legislation.
Bullying is the use of aggressive behavior by an individual in a position of power to victimize another individual viewed as weak. In the age of the Internet, physical bullying has taken a back seat to psychological intimidation, which takes on many guises. Because social networks play an increasingly larger role in the everyday lives of preteens and teens, cyberbullying has reached greater heights. In fact, close to 20 percent of high school students have admitted to being cyberbullied in the last year, according to stopbullying.gov, a website that coordinates closely with the Federal Partners in Bullying Prevention Steering Committee, an interagency effort led by the Department of Education. Even more alarming: LGBT students are particularly vulnerable; over 50 percent of LGBT students have admitted to being cyberbullied.
Peer pressure can also turn into a form of bullying. Here, a person loses the option to walk away from a situation that makes him or her feel uncomfortable. Not surprisingly, in many cases, observers of bullying are pressured to join in, resulting in a mob mentality. Individuals who succumb to peer pressure and join in the act of bullying often cite the fear of being bullied themselves as a motivation for participating in an activity they know is wrong.
Although some might say bullying is something that exists in school and ends by adulthood, the opposite has proven true. Bullying, for both the victim and the offender, can have long-lasting effects, ranging from depression and low self-esteem for those that are bullied to violence and criminal activity for those that do the bullying. In many cases, victims of bullying are often emotionally scarred for life, and victims of bullying are more likely to commit future violent acts. Suicide has become one of the leading causes of death for those under the age of 15, and this stems from the fact that younger students are more vulnerable to the effects of bullying. In fact, adolescent depression and suicide has been on the rise since the twentieth century. Despite the threat to teens and repercussions that continue into adulthood, our legislative branch fails to recognize the severity of bullying; recently Colorado’s state Senate shelved a bill against cyberbullying.
Although schools around the country have instituted programs to curtail bullying, the reality is that bullying can take on forms that bypass and escape parents and school officials. It is therefore essential that middle school and high school officials work with student leaders in their respective schools to understand the causes of bullying, how it spreads through social media, and how to find solutions so that the victims of bullying and even the bullies themselves can have a more enjoyable school experience, leading to happier and more productive lives. Discourse is important, but action is vital.