The recent suicide of Rutgers University freshman, Tyler Clementi, who killed himself after his roommate used a hidden webcam to record his sexual encounter with another male student and posted it on Twitter, was hardly the first case of a teenager driven to suicide by cyber-bullies.
Cyber-bullying has been blamed for several recent deaths, but most of these incidents start off-line, in classrooms, cafeterias, or schoolyards. Bullying is mostly a school problem, but there doesn't seem to be any widespread adoption of consistent policies that involve "best practices" for prevention in schools. Victims still wind up feeling isolated and unable to tell anyone. Schools are usually reactive. Many still use a mediation model that makes bullying seem like a problem between kids and not a crime against a child.
Because of the high profile cases, more laws are being written to punish bullying especially the cyber kind. The Internet magnifies the effects of bullying and cuts off the idea of any safe haven.
But will new laws actually prevent tragedies? We need to remember that we are for the most part talking about teenagers here -- teenaged perpetuators and teenaged victims. Teenagers think differently than adults. Victims don't handle stressful situation as well in part because their brains aren't fully developed and in part perhaps because they lack the life experience to do so. Perpetrators don't take into account the consequences of their actions -- not only the impact on the victim, but the punishment for themselves.
In the Rutgers case, the roommate and his friend have already been charged with a felony -- invasion of privacy -- for recording the sexual encounter and making it public. They may be charged with a bias crime or possibly reckless homicide. No matter what they are charged with, it's easy to imagine their defense. They are impressionable eighteen year olds who have seen prank shows on television. They have no criminal histories. They simply exercised very bad judgment and had no way of imagining that what they did would lead to a young man's death.
Unlike the case of Megan Meier, where an adult mother of another teenager, posed as an adolescent boy online in order to attract and then reject Megan, there's no smoking gun here where the perpetrators actually suggested that "the world would be a better place" without their victim in it. They didn't physically drive him to the bridge from which he jumped.
While a jury may decide that a lengthy-prison sentence equals justice for Tyler, the truth is that preventing future tragedies will be a much bigger job.
As an educational grant-writer, I know there are requests for funding, both private and public, for after school programs that address bullying. But even if a district or school gets an award, only a fraction of children will attend these programs. Schools must develop proactive, comprehensive strategies beginning in the earliest grades.
Prevention programs can be adjusted for the needs of children as they grow. Compassion is hard to teach and we can't force everyone to play nice all the time, but we can begin in the early grades to develop effective strategies to teach young people to both take responsibility for their behaviors and think about how they impact others. Instead of a teacher reactively telling parents that their isolated child may need counseling or that their outgoing one has a tendency to tease, let's teach all kids social skills. Kids love learning about "psychology" and how socialization works. Learning to think critically and reflect on one's own actions is a transferable cognitive skill. Using role-plays engages children and can enhance communication and literacy skills. Bullying prevention programs can and should be fused into elementary and middle school curriculum. They can be generalized, presented from books and websites with scenarios such as dealing with peer pressure to isolate or bully "the new kid." In that way, the material is not "about" a situation that may be ongoing within that particular classroom, but can allow the teacher to address similar issues, and help all students practice social problem solving and gain a deeper understanding of the impact of their actions on others.
With a push towards service learning, older high school students can play a role by visiting elementary schools and presenting skits and workshops to educate younger children about bullying and what they can do to stop, prevent, and resolve it. (Programs such as these exist and are being utilized not only to prevent bullying, but also to help kids learn good decision making in a variety of areas. They involve the secondary gain engaging high school students, which prevents their dropping out.)
Once we define actual bullying as threats, intimidation -- both physical and psychological, spreading rumors, organized isolation of individuals with threats to those who befriend them, use of telephone or computers to intimidate, etc. -- then the next step is figuring out policies and punishments. What you can't have is a mishmash where Student A is lucky enough to go to Lincoln High School where he'll find that all students are aware of the policies, know to whom to go for help, and know when they go for that help they will get it, while Student B goes to Washington High School where she finds herself in a conference with the Principal who tries to work out an "agreement" between her and her and her torturers who can't wait for the meeting to end so they can tweet to the world, and start a really ugly new rumor through an anonymous Facebook account while planning the next girl's room attack. Kids need limits to be clear and concrete. Potential perpetrators need to be aware of the consequences for their actions. Schools must make sure their policies are clear to all kids -- victims, perpetrators, witnesses, and bystanders -- as well as to their parents.
Another missing piece in addressing bullying involves preventing victims from reacting by self-harm or lashing out at others.. On the one hand, victims are not responsible for their abuse, and should never be made to feel like they brought it on themselves. We'll never be able to prevent 100% of bullying anymore than we'll be able to prevent all robberies or other crime. Therefore, in addition to policies that make it easier to report bullying before it escalates, all young people must also learn how to deal with a worst-case bullying event. It's similar to the need to teach survival skills for escaping a molester, or practicing how to leave a burning school building.
I once took a workshop at The Albert Ellis Institute. The Institute practices a form of cognitive therapy known as "rational-emotive" therapy. At the workshop we were asked to imagine the following scenario: "You have been vigorously masturbating in a room. You have just been told that a group of people including everyone you know has been watching through a hidden camera. You are a now about to go out to another room where all those people are waiting. What will you say to them?"
Given that I was an adult with an MSW and some experience as a clinician, I was able to come up with my answer: "Good evening ladies and gentleman. First, let me start by addressing your embarrassment. Voyeurism is a natural tendency, and I forgive those of you who chose not to look away..."
Most teenagers would not come up with that kind of reply, but allowing them to visualize the most humiliating thing and imagine coping with it, might just give them enough time after a real life crisis to not embark on a permanent solution to a temporary problem. It might increase their awareness of how overwhelmed they would be, so that they could come up with an emergency safety plan.
While comprehensive prevention programs and legal remedies might eventually make bullying less acceptable and frequent, there will always be people whose cruelty is reckless and without bounds. In order to prevent young victims from turning their anger on themselves or others, we must act proactively to help them develop the skills to realize that even having your sex life revealed on the Internet or being told by your cyber-boyfriend that the world would be better off without you, is survivable and not a reason to take your own life.