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News Story
Updated: 10/04/2013 06:40:45PM

Cyberbullying: If you see something, say something

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Few events are as tragic as the death of a child.

And when a child dies by his or her own hand, a little bit of each of us dies.

“Social networking” has added a new dimension to the sometimes life-threatening situations that children face. It is a textbook case of unintended consequences.

A generation or two ago, there was a classic answer to playground taunts: “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me.”

It was an oversimplification, of course — words can and do hurt — but it gave the targets of bullying a response as well as a personal reminder for themselves.

Cyberbullying, a word that didn’t even exist a few years ago, has become a major concern of parents, educators, law enforcement officers, and anyone else who loves children.

In extreme cases, it has led to suicide by children whose lives were rendered miserable by online bullying.

Playground taunts, while mean-spirited, don’t have the impact of the written word. Whether on paper or on the Internet, the written word survives long after the spoken word is forgotten.

The tragic reality of the impact of cyberbullying was brought home last week by the death of Rebecca Ann Sedwick, whose funeral was held in Bartow on Monday.

Becca, as she was known to family and friends, was a 12-year-old student at Lawton Chiles Middle Academy in Lakeland. Her winsome smile, partially hidden by long brown hair, has become a familiar image in newspapers and on television. The story of her death has received national attention.

The sheriff’s office reports that she was the target of online bullying by 15 classmates, some of whom suggested that she kill herself. The distraught youngster told a 12-year-old friend in North Carolina who she also knew through social media that she was planning to take her own life because “I can’t take it any more.”

It is easier to cast blame than it is to find solutions.

One veteran school teacher told us that cyber-bullying has become the modern day equivalent to writing ugly messages on restroom walls. But ugly messages in cyberspace can’t be painted over by the school maintenance staff.

Every school in Polk County — perhaps in the nation — has declared a “zero tolerance” policy on bullying of all types. Posters are displayed on bulletin boards, staffs and faculties are trained, students are encouraged to report bullying: “If you see something, say something.”

A California school district has contracted with a high tech firm to monitor the social media conversations of some 14,000 middle and high school students at a cost of $40,500. That expenditure represents $2.89 per student per year.

An article in Monday’s issue of The Los Angeles Times quotes officials as saying that the monitoring focuses on words and phrases indicating the possibility of suicide or other forms of violence, not on harmless adolescent chit-chat.

The LA Times story mentions the death of Becca Sedwick as one of the motivations for such monitoring.

Predictably, the ACLU declared this monitoring to be a violation of privacy rights of students.

But a California First Amendment organization defended the practice, noting that the posts being monitored are not private, and are available to anyone with an electronic device and a pre-teenager’s knowledge of social media. Anyone posting “secrets” on the Internet needs to remember that.

While parents can exercise some degree of oversight of their children’s social media communications by establishing passwords and other parental controls, ways to thwart such controls are as simple as they are numerous.

Opinions on how to combat cyberbullying and its tragic consequences are varied.

One of the online sources we researched for this editorial is commonsensemedia.org/cyberbullying. Undoubtedly there are many others.

We believe that the most effective way to combat cyberbullying is for young people to buy into the concept that it must not be tolerated. Peer pressure is a powerful motivating factor for adolescents.

Reporting of cyberbullying and indications of self-destructive intent is a part of that approach.

Students — whether targets or their friends — can tell a parent, a teacher, a police officer, even another student: If you see something, say something.

Even that is not foolproof, but it is a start.

For a taunted Polk County 12-year-old, nothing worked, and that is a tragedy.

God rest your soul, Becca.


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