Reading last week about the suicide of 12-year-old Rebecca Ann Sedwick filled me with a familiar sense of dread. The news coverage stressed that Sedwick had been taunted and threatened online, beginning last year, by other kids at her middle school. Her mother took her daughter’s phone away, closed down her Facebook page, and even pulled her out of school. Last December, Rebecca was cutting herself, the New York Times reports, and her mother “had her hospitalized and got her counseling.”
This fall, Rebecca started at a new school. She must have gotten her phone back, because after she jumped to her death, the police searched it and discovered that she was on sites her mother didn’t know about—ask.fm, Kik, and Voxer. According to the Times:
Sheriff Judd said Rebecca had been using these messaging applications to send and receive texts and photographs. His office showed Ms. Norman the messages and photos, including one of Rebecca with razor blades on her arms and cuts on her body. The texts were full of hate, her mother said: “Why are you still alive?” “You’re ugly.”
One said, “Can u die please?”
I know that for a lot of parents, this story is as scary and hopeless as it is sad. When I wrote my book about bullying, Sticks and Stones, kids were being anonymously cyberbullied on a site called Formspring. Now it’s out of business, but ask.fm and the others have appeared in its place. Dealing with these apps feels like playing Whac-A-Mole, and tragedies like Rebecca’s make it seem like parents are powerless. But they’re not. Here are some important lessons the bullying experts I respect try to teach parents:
Help your kid enter the world of social media, not by expecting to control every single thing they do, but by talking through in advance the potential pitfalls. Here’s very sound advice from Elizabeth Englander, one of the best people working on bullying prevention and author of the terrific new book for educators, Bullying and Cyberbullying:
While you should monitor what your young kids do with their cells, realize that it may be impossible to always know what apps or websites they go to. Because total control probably just isn't possible anymore, make sure you talk to your kids about the kinds of problems that can happen on ANY app or site. Discuss how kids sometimes say things online that they don't always mean, but how upsetting it can still be to read this. Ask your child to think about, and plan, what to do if this happens to them. You don't have to be relentlessly negative or scary—the point is just to let kids know that sometimes things get really out of control in digital environments; that it doesn't often happen but DOES sometimes happen; and what can we do to make you feel better if you see or are subject to something really bad or scary? By talking about this in a positive way before it ever happens, you enormously increase the odds that your child will come to you if it DOES happen.
Englander recommends having these conversations when your child is between the ages of 9 and 12, depending on their smartphone and social media access (for that, later is better). More good general tips for parents here, from Rebecca Levey of the site KidsVuz, who wrote this post aimed at parents after Rebecca Sedwick’s death.
Englander also questions whether kids who have shown signs of depression or cutting, or are struggling with bullying, should have their own phones:
If your child is struggling with depression, severe anxiety, social problems like bullying or fighting, know that problems in social media can compound their suffering. It may be better, for these children, to wait until they're feeling stronger and more able to cope. And no matter what they say, you're not the only parent of a pre-teen who said NO.
Agreed. Rebecca’s mother recognized this, but the news stories don’t say how long her daughter lost her phone access. They also don’t tell us how long she was in counseling. I’d also like to stress the importance of sticking with therapy if your child is going through a transition, like starting a new school. As Rebecca’s mother said after her death, kids can seem fine—as if they’ve completely bounced back—when that’s not actually the case. Continuing therapy gives them, and you, another safety net.
Now, I have a question for you (and I’d like to hear from teenagers as well as adults): What do you think explains the suicide baiting on social media? I see it all the time, and I still don’t get it. Fortunately, most kids who receive messages like “Can u die please?’” don’t hurt themselves. But this is a corrosive thing that kids are doing, and I’d like to understand it better. Here are thoughts from Danah Boyd, author of another interesting book, It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens, due out February 2014:
Sadly, one of the ways in which youth are mean to one another is by telling them that no one likes them. This is often followed by a message suggesting that they should kill themselves or die. The intention of such verbal aggression is to isolate the other person. The implication is that they deserve it. I wish I could say that this was just teens, but it's a kind of rhetoric that is also common among aggressive adults.
What do you think is going on here, and how can we help put a stop to it? Because I just can’t bear to believe that the people who write these messages mean what they say. Write to me at firstname.lastname@example.org with thoughts—and like I said, I’d especially love to hear from teenagers. Email may be quoted in Slate unless you stipulate otherwise. If you want to be quoted anonymously, please let me know. (And please check out Slate's submission guidelines before you write in.)