EL PASO, Texas — Advances in communication on the Internet lifted what once was school-yard bullying to a new mean-spirited high-tech level.
The negative consequences of bullying have become a growing problem in schools around the world in the last 10 years, rising to a tragic level. Many victims feeling alone and without relief resort to acts of violence against those who hurt them or commit suicide.
“Cyberbullying occurs when the victim is probably totally alone and thus, possibly more prone to reacting negatively, even to the point of suicide, as no one is there for him/her to talk to in person,” according to Dr. Don Combs, Professor of Psychology at the University of Texas at El Paso. “Physical bullying, of course, creates the great possibility of physical harm, even death. I think that both are very intimidating and each has its own unique difficulties, and both have lethal potential, each in its own way,” Combs said.
No one will ever forget what happened on April 20, 1999 at Columbine High School in Colorado, when two students opened fire killing 12 students and one teacher and wounding more than 20 others. It was later revealed that the shooters who killed themselves had been at the receiving end of bullying. This event rattled the nation and illuminated the issue of bullying in schools.
“The Columbine shooting opened the eyes of society to see how much damage bullying does in any social environment,” said a University of Texas at El Paso student who asked to remain anonymous. “This event redefined many policies in and out of school and personally even left me and others feeling insecure even on school campuses, “ he said.
According to the Stopping School Violence website, whose mission is to “empower students, parents and educators to handle bullying,” schools now report that more than a quarter of a million students per month are being physically attacked during the school day.”
With the increasing popularity of social networks like MySpace, Facebook, and Twitter and texting cellular phones, bullying has made its way into cyberspace.
“There is no doubt that bullying in schools has increased and spread to every social environment,” said the anonymous UTEP freshman.
Stopcyberbullying.org says cyberbullying occurs “when one child targets another child using interactive technologies such as cell phones, or instant messages.” The website says that the effects of cyberbullying are longer lasting than physical bullying because a person’s mental wellbeing is attacked.
Bullying does not stop at the elementary and high school levels. It has spread to colleges and universities. Because of the vastness of the Internet, cyberbullying has targeted more victims of all ages, races, religions and sexual orientations.
Tyler Clementi, 18, a freshman at Rutgers University, jumped to his death from the George Washington Bridge on September 2010. His suicide followed the Internet broadcast of a secretly filmed intimate encounter.
Clementi’s roommate Dharun Ravi, 18, and another classmate, Molly Wei, 18, were charged with invasion of privacy. Ravi secretly filmed and posted the video along with several of his opinions about Clementi’s sexuality.
“It is distressing how a simple mistake by two college peers can lead to such a traumatic event. I feel that what his roommate did was incorrect and I would even call it indirect murder. Tyler Clementi’s sexual orientation is his own to disclose. And his sexual life is even more private just as anyone else’s,” said the UTEP freshman. “Intruding on his personal life and exposing it as his peers did made me sick to see that someone would want to cause so much damage to a fellow classmate.”
Clementi’s suicide spurred a whirlwind of debate. He is considered a victim of cyberspace bullying. The public is questioning if the charge of invasion of privacy is enough for the perpetrators.
“What should the punishment be for acts like cyberbullying and online humiliation? That question is as difficult to answer as how to integrate our values with all the things in our lives made of bits, balancing a right to privacy with the urge to text, tweet, stream and post,” says John Schwartz in his article “Bullying, Suicide, Punishment” in The New York Times.
“I feel that he [Dharun Ravi] really did not uphold the academic or moral fiber, the standard or the expectancy of the institution of higher learning,” said Joshua Vincent, a senior Microbiology major at the University of Texas at El Paso. “It really is this lack of respect…that has caused this young man’s death. This necessitates a response not only from the university, but also from the police. Bullying of this sort cannot be allowed to continue. I feel that the perpetrator should be punished to the full extent of the law.”
A month after this tragic death, organizations are teaming up to combat cyberbullying. According to Yahoo News, the popular social network Facebook has announced that they are partnering with The Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) to create a network of support for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered people.
According to a Facebook blog page devoted to online safety, “We believe that educating people about the lasting and damaging impact of hateful remarks is a shared responsibility and that’s why we routinely call upon top Internet safety experts – like members of our Safety Advisory Board – for advice and resources for our Safety Center and Safety Page.”
“We as a society are made up of individuals and it truly is our individual responsibility to maintain ourselves in a responsible manner when we are online,” said Vincent.