Kids can be cruel. Almost as cruel as so-called grown-ups. That cruelty has found its way on to the web in the form of cyber bullying, and into the lives of countless young people who thought they might be able to escape the harassment by enjoying their on-line pursuits.
Recently in Canada, there was the tragic case of Rehtaeh Parsons – allegedly raped at a party, photographed, and the photographs went out on the Internet. This led to the kind of humiliation which no person should ever even have nightmares about. Rehtaeh and her parents had gone to the R.C.M.P., her school, and the hospital seeking help, but received none. This is pretty much the way things had played out for Amanda Todd, of British Columbia, Canada and Audrie Pott, of California, U.S.A. It is very likely this is the story of an untold number of girls AND boys, like Ryan Patrick Halligan, the world over. The cruelty we adults burden these children with is the cruelty of indifference.
Cassidy’s Cyber Bullying Story
I want to tell you about 13 year-old Cassidy of Western Canada. Cassidy was a very athletic girl, was on the honor roll, and generally a pretty popular kid. I knew Cassidy personally and saw her every day. She was a true champ in all respects. Adults often commented on how responsible she was, and other kids often came to her for help. One day, for whatever reason kids do hurtful things, a boy at her school decided he didn’t like Cassidy. This is where the trouble started.
What caused this event was Cassidy being made a Student Advisor. This was a position that was created to reward good students who showed leadership skills and concern for others. Student Advisors were called upon to supervise the class in the brief absence of a teacher and to help younger kids with homework or problems at school. They were marked on their performance of these roles. Cassidy’s teacher chose her, and put her in charge of the class for up to an hour at a time. When the kids acted poorly, the teacher told Cassidy that she needed to get a better grip on the students. Cassidy was not a vocal person and shunned even minor conflict. She didn’t even order her own food at restaurants until she was 10 because she was so shy. It took a lot of courage for her to ask the other kids to calm down and be quiet. Once she did, one boy in Grade Six decided he had it in for her and wanted to make her feel awful.
Kids do things like this and their weird mind games change by the hour at that age. I recall everybody in my Grade 6 class all of a sudden writing wills and leaving comic books to other kids who promised to leave their Transformers to them, and so on. It seemed fun, and funny, at the time, but looking back it was pretty bizarre and morbid behavior. But, by the second-recess, the hub-bub was over and it was on to something else. The web changed that. The web makes things stick for life. The web can be, and often is, forever.
The Hate Page
The boy created a Facebook Page called something like, “I Hate Cassidy and I Hope She Dies.” Friends of Cassidy’s on Facebook started liking the page and then making horrible comments about how much they hated her too, and that she should ‘just die’ or ‘just kill herself’. She was called names as well, cutting names about her appearance. There were accusations of being a brown-noser or teacher’s pet, but in coarse terms like ‘bitch’ and worse.
Because of the cyber bullying, Cassidy was convinced her friends had never really liked her and really were going to hate her forever. She believed the lies about her appearance and personality. Cassidy sobbed for a long time, many times. Cassidy had a strong relationship with her parents and knew she could talk to them. She showed her Mom and Dad the hate page and told them how it made her feel. They told her about their experiences, that this isn’t something new, it’s just a new and horribly cowardly way to do it. It wasn’t brushed off and ignored, the situation was just given some context by two people who had lots of life experience in this kind of thing. They also told her they’d take care of it and try not to embarrass her even further. So often kids are scared that if their parents step in, they’re just going to make things worse. That’s not the case if the parents show tact, diplomacy, and discretion.
The School’s Response
Her Dad is an IT guy and took screenshots of everything and determined when the page was actually created – during class time in the computer lab, under teacher supervision. Her parents thought that this was something the school would want to know about, and trusted that the school would help put an end to this cyber bullying. With the print-outs in hand, they went to see the school’s Principal. Not only did he offer no support other than a little glad-handing and perfunctory, “Oh I’m sorry about this.”, it came out that the teacher of that class actually HELPED the boy make the hate page. “It’s on the Internet, there’s nothing we can do. The Internet is not our responsibility.” the Principal said. The teachers response, in front of Cassidy’s Mom was, “Well, I have to go tell the boy to get it off there before he gets in trouble, and tell the other kids to get off of it too!”
This was the same teacher who helped the boy make the page. The teacher tracked down the family, as they were headed out of country on a vacation, to tell the boy to take the page down before he got in trouble. The page came down immediately and some rude remarks were made by his parents about Cassidy’s parents being troublemakers. Nothing happened in the way of discipline or even an apology. Coincidentally, the boy’s family is a fairly prominent one in that little western town.
Up the chain, the parents went to the Superintendent of the school district. Cassidy’s parents knew a thing or two about municipal politics and bureaucracy, so they knew how to manoeuvre the system and what key things to say to a Superintendent. They did get his attention, and he did give the Principal a mini-lecture, but still nothing was done to discipline the teacher OR the student that did the cyber bullying. “I can’t do anything. The Teachers’ Union has my hands tied.”, said the Superintendent. Coincidentally, the Superintendent was retiring very soon.
Her parents then contacted Facebook directly and brought the page to their attention. They responded quickly and responsibly, sending the parents copies of the now-removed page so they’d have something to take to the authorities. The fellow that they talked with was compassionate and extremely helpful. Good for you Facebook, good for you.
The Police’s Response
Cassidy wasn’t sleeping well anymore and began to withdraw. It was time to take the case to the police. This was cyber bullying after all and anti-bullying is the big cause for police agencies. Her class had been through anti-bullying seminars put on by the police. The kids were 12 and over, and there were death threats made and, obviously, criminal harassment. Yet the police simply pointed the parents back to the school, even when told the school wasn’t going to do anything about it. Did I mention the boy’s family is a fairly prominent one in that little western town?
The Human Rights Commission’s Response
In Canada, each province has a Human Rights Commission or similar agency that is supposed to be there to protect everyone’s human rights. The Commission had prosecuted employers successfully for calling employees names. The Commission had prosecuted a small periodical for reporting on a contentious issue that made some readers “uncomfortable”. Surely, they could do something to help Cassidy and help ensure this didn’t happen again at her school. Cassidy was publicly humiliated, her trust violated by people in positions of authority, and was starting to suffer the physical effects of stress and anxiety – increased weight gain, high blood pressure resulting in frequent and uncontrollable nosebleeds, and even some hair loss. Surely this was a violation of her right to an education in a non-hostile environment, and her right to justice. The Human Rights Commission didn’t even return her parents phone calls.
The Final Response
Mom and Dad had many heart-to-heart talks with Cassidy, and family friends too. Cassidy was a part of the fight against the cyber bullying all the way along, and it’s a good thing that she was. She learned that her parents would always fight for her. She learned that maybe the people that are supposed to help and defend you aren’t quite as dedicated as they say they are. She learned that persistence and conviction of her beliefs might not fix everything, but it will leave her soul intact. Cassidy lived through her ordeal.
The family eventually moved to another part of Canada as they saw situations just like this play out all over Western Canada, where Amanda Todd and Reena Virk were from. There were some other incidents along the way that helped to make the decision to move – gang violence in her school, threats of her being cut by a kid brandishing a knife for just being in someone’s way, and a multi-day suspension for kissing a boy on the cheek. Or, as the same Principal called it, “Inappropriate sexual conduct.”
What Happened To Cassidy
Once her family got where they were going, Cassidy resumed being awesome, but a lot of her innocence was lost. She never really trusted many of her friends anymore, and stopped blindly trusting authority figures who said that they were looking out for her. She came to understand that only family really looks out for family, and even then that isn’t always true. In some ways, it made her more independent and even more responsible. As an older teenager, you can still see the hurt and anger on her face when she sees anyone verbally or physically push someone else around. You can feel her loneliness when she talks about what other kids at school are doing and the parties and events she chooses to miss. She refuses to let situations happen where this might happen to her again in a worse way.
When the topic comes up at school, since this is still a fashionable cause, she readily tells of her experience and what real cyber bullying is and what it can do to a person. Cassidy is now a provincial level athlete with decent grades, a part-time job, her own car and big life goals including university and making the national team. Our family keeps in close contact with her to this day. Let’s call cyber bullying what it is, let’s call bullying what it really is – terrorism, abuse, assault, a human rights violation. Kids will tease and kids will taunt. It still hurts, that’s life. It doesn’t stop at any age and never will. Yet there is a line that should be clearly defined and parents, teachers, police, all adults must teach kids about. More importantly, we need to show kids with our own daily behaviour that abuse, extortion, and sexual assault is not acceptable.
What Can I Do If I’m Being Cyber Bullied?
Talk With Your Parents Or An Adult You Trust
Whatever the problem, talk with your parents. Even if it is an embarrassing picture or video of you doing something you really don’t want your parents to know about. As a dad, I can tell you I would be far more angry with you that you hurt yourself, or killed yourself, than I would about what ever you were doing in the pictures or video. We all do stupid things we regret, even your Mom and Dad. Most of us live through our most embarrassing moments, usually because we can talk with someone about it. If you really feel you can’t talk about it with your folks, maybe you have a relative or teacher that you trust. Talk to them about it, and about how you can eventually talk with Mom and Dad about it. Sooner or later you really need to.
Understand That Some People Are Just Mean
At least 3% of the people you meet in your life aren’t going to like you, no matter how awesome you are. Understand that they’re missing out on knowing someone who is pretty cool. There is no-one on earth that is worth any more, or any less than you are. Every human is priceless – and that means you.
Look 10 Years Into The Future
If you’re 12 now, in 10 short years where will that jerk be? Probably pushing people around in his minimum wage job, getting drunk or stoned every night, and living a miserable life without even knowing it. Where are you going to be when you’re 20? You might not even live in the same town. You could be graduating from college, with a whole new set of friends. You could be working on a new song, or making the next killer game online. You might even be married. The future is yours. The future doesn’t belong to bullies.
What Can I Do To Fight Abuse On The Internet?
Talk With Your Children
It’s you and them against the world, folks. If you aren’t enjoying your conversations with them daily, you’re missing out on a lot of precious moments you can never get back. It sets the framework of trust for when they really need to talk with you. Trust me, they will really need to talk with you someday. This doesn’t mean you have to be their best buddy or that you have to promise not to get mad. Getting angry is fine, it’s human. Just save it for after the crisis is worked through and everyone is okay. By then your anger will be better tempered by a cooler head and what you are saying and doing will be much better received. That’s my opinion, anyway. If you see that your kids are being hurtful to other kids, educate them. Maybe they have a right to be angry, so show them how to channel that anger properly. Teach them some basic conflict resolution skills, like expressing their feelings and opinions in a calm manner. The more you talk with your kids the more you’ll know them and their world. You’ll be able to see warning signs such as weight loss or gain, trouble concentrating, putting themselves down, fast changes in appearances and moods. Don’t be afraid to talk with them if you think something is wrong.
Teach Them About the Internet and You
Many of you have been on the Internet long enough now to have a history. Show your kids some stuff you posted back in 2001, or 1996, just not the stuff that might be R-rated. They’ll understand that stuff sticks around on the Internet. Talk to them about stories like Cassidy’s, Amanda’s and the boy who posted a sex-video from his cellphone, and was charged with making child porn. In that boy’s case, the sex was allegedly consensual, yet police and the news are calling the girl the only victim. Really, the boy has victimized himself too. Who knows when that video will resurface in his life? Whatever your views are on premarital sex are, try to make your kids understand that whatever they do is nobody’s business but theirs and yours as their parent.
Perhaps even more importantly, show them that people aren’t always who they say they are on the Internet. That cute boy or girl who wants to see a little more of you is highly likely to be an old pervert who’ll end up sending your pictures to their creepy friends.
Shape Their Internet Experience
There are various opinions about when and how to expose your kids to technology. In the broader sense, they are exposed to technology the day they are born. You can still shape their experience though. Just like you may decide which TV shows they can watch, or when they are old enough for a cellphone, you have a say in how they go online. If your boy or girl wants to join Facebook, or any other website, look into it before you say it’s okay to go ahead. Don’t wimp out with the ‘They’re just going to do it anyway” excuse. You are their parent, you shape their world-understanding. Understand what the site’s policies are on minors using the site and inappropriate content. Understand that it’s okay to check out their page every now and again, as well as their friends’ pages. Get some ideas from Ryan Dube’s article on How To Get Kids To Use Facebook Responsibly. You’d check on them if they were playing in the backyard, wouldn’t you? Then why not on the World Wide Web?
Many Internet Service Providers and Software Developers also have free or inexpensive tools that will help you regulate your kids online exposure. It might be a scheduler that only allows them online at certain times. It might be a blacklist program that blocks certain websites, or a whitelist program where you choose which websites they can use. At MakeUseOf, many of us have kids and all of us used to be kids, so we’re here to help too! We have an article highlighting 10 kid-friendly search engines. Yaara Lancet has a list of safe e-mail apps for kids. Tim Lenahan looked into sites that help educate you and your kids about Internet safety. That’s a great start to good conversations! If your kids are a little younger, say single digits, start them with some fun games that help teach Internet safety, put together by Saikat Basu. In the age of smartphones, tablets, and phablets, thank goodness Yaara has found an app to help our young ones enjoy Android devices, but keep them out of accidental trouble. If there’s an app for Android, there must be more like it for iPads and iPhones!
Work with the School, Authorities, and Media
Many schools have a Code of Conduct or similar guide. Check it out to see what their stance is on abuse online and offline. If it doesn’t include the online component, work with the school to get it included with specifics about how such instances will be dealt with. Make it a fair playing ground for everyone. Check your school’s Internet Conduct and Usage guidelines. If they don’t have one, work with them to develop one and show them what can be done to limit access to sites that kids may very well get themselves in trouble using. Many schools have little or no IT staff to implement and maintain these systems. Why not volunteer to help?
Take the time to write a letter to your local newspaper, radio, or television station. This is a hot topic right now, so take advantage of that to get the media talking about Internet safety, bullying, and abuse. This is a proactive way to make the media work for you and your kids. Point them to resources from your school, police, or the Internet in general. Why wouldn’t they do a story where all the work has been done for them? If you find yourself in a situation like Cassidy’s, think about possibly using the media to draw attention to the abuse and neglect. Rehtaeh Parsons’ Dad did that with a Facebook post and the story became viral. Local authorities were all of a sudden more helpful and mindful of the problem.
Anonymous brought world wide attention, and pressure, to the R.C.M.P. and Crown Prosecutor’s Office who previously did nothing to help Rehtaeh Parsons’ daughter.
After this video was released, Nova Scotia Premier Darrell Dexter got involved, and so did Canada’s Prime Minister, Stephen Harper. While Stephen Harper may not have been fully aware of this story before he saw the video, Premier Darrell Dexter certainly was.
Parents, we do the best we can with what we’ve got. Kids, your parents want the best for you even if you think they’re just old-fashioned and too strict. Work together and use the tools that are available. Bad things will still happen, but they might not be this bad. If you listen to the kids — and kids, listen to Mom and Dad — then you can get through the bad things in one piece. Adults in the community, stop being afraid to stand up for others, or eventually no one will stand up for you either. Be firm, be fair, be respectful. We are all in this world together, for such a short time. We really all do play on the same team in life. Let’s be there for each other.
Image Credits: Bullying as Abuse via Shutterstock, See No Evil, Hear No Evil, Speak No Evil via gfairchild on Flickr, Abused Girl via Shutterstock, Abused Girl Silenced via Shuttersock, Boy Being Bullied via Shutterstock, Mom and Daughter on Internet via Shutterstock.