Death by bullying in the internet age

Teenagers and young adults, the victims of online bullying, have been committing suicide in alarming numbers. Melanie Barwick outlines some of the warning signs.

Melanie Barwick is a registered psychologist with a primary role as a health systems scientist in the Community Health Systems Resource Group at the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto.

Children are dying.

Not always because of illness, accidents or natural causes. Kids are dying at their own hand to end the suffering of incessant bullying and victimization.

According to The Associated Press, there have been at least 12 cases in the U.S. since 2003 in which children and young adults between 11 and 18 killed themselves after falling victim to some form of "cyber bullying" — teasing, harassing or intimidating with pictures or words distributed online or via text message.

Last month, an 18-year-old Rutgers University student jumped from a bridge to his death after his roommate and another student allegedly used a webcam to stream video of him having sex with another man.

In 2006, 13-year-old Megan Meier hanged herself after receiving messages through social media — supposedly from a teenage boy — cruelly dumping her. An adult neighbour was later found guilty of taking part in the hoax, but the conviction was overturned.

Earlier this year, 17-year-old Alexis Pilkington, who had landed a college soccer scholarship, killed herself after receiving a stream of nasty messages. Just last month, video of a drugged 16-year old B.C. teen’s rape at a rave was posted on Facebook.

Also earlier this year, nine Massachusetts teenagers were charged following a long bullying campaign of a 15-year old girl that led to her suicide. According to the investigation, the bullying of this young lady was common knowledge to most of the student body and to certain faculty members, staff and school administrators. School policy was poorly enforced, leading to this tragic outcome.

A kid is bullied every 20 seconds in Canada.  Every day in the U.S., an estimated 20,000 students don’t go to school because they are afraid.

Not all bullying or cyber-bullying results in death, but it is all harmful. According to a survey released last year by Microsoft Canada and Youthography, a research and marketing agency, about 40 per cent of teens reported having been the victims of online bullying and 16 per cent admitted bullying others.

Some have suggested that, in the internet age, kids no longer know the difference between private and public.

They are growing up with unprecedented access to the most decrepit, amoral behaviours portrayed on the internet for all to see. It is a virtual potpourri of anything and everything human beings could engage in.

As a scientist, I understand that the first line of defence in prevention and treatment is to understand the root causes of negative or unhealthy behaviour, poor mental health, or illness. Only if you know the cause or contributing factors can you tackle the problem.

But what do you do when the complexity of the problem suggests a variety of causes? How are we to know where to put our energies, what issues to tackle and how?

Kids are committing suicide as a result of being bullied and victimized, and the precipitating factors — the facts of the events leading up to their deaths and the perpetrators are known and reported in the media.

Is this only a bullying issue? Is this a sign of increasing violence in our younger generation? Is this evidence of poor moral development or sociopathy, perhaps?

Maybe it's kids just being kids, as they’ve always been, the difference being that the potency of their bullying behaviour has gained strength with the availability of social media tools that increase the spread and speed at which hateful and violent behaviour is spun around the world.

The world is going viral with no consideration for the content.  The internet effectively serves as a magnifying glass for intolerance, cowardice, hate and violence.

Combine that with the poor judgment, risk-seeking and impetuous behaviours — and omnipotence often associated with the developmental state of adolescence — and you’ve got a virulent problem at hand.

What to do?

Talk about it. Talk about it with your own children, your family, friends and community. Don’t let it go unnoticed. Children and others need to hear that bullying and violent behaviours are hurtful, immoral, hateful, often illegal and won’t be tolerated in our society. 

Fight back. By spreading tolerance of individual differences and hope for overcoming oppression using the same tools — the internet and social media — we can get the attention of our youth and poignantly share messages of compassion, hope, strategies and resources for help-seeking, and a message, loud and clear, that we are all equal regardless of our identities be they defined by ethnicity, race, sexuality, gender, status or other classification. Dan Savage, a Seattle-based advice columnist, has taken this very approach through his online project, It Gets Better, in response to the suicide of Billy Lucas, a 15-year old from Indiana who was the victim of anti-gay bullying. 

Prosecute and hold accountable the perpetrators. Help make sound policy and laws, and enforce them.  In the Criminal Code of Canada, the punishment for being found guilty of publishing material known to be false and harmful to a person’s reputation is up to five years in prison. This includes publishing a web page or posting on a newsgroup untrue statements about a person that could entice other people to ridicule or perpetuate the untruths about this person.

Step up to the fight. is working with MP Mike Allen to start a national petition to have the Canadian government introduce a law against bullying.

Check your own behaviour. Be aware of what you say and how you behave that may be perceived as hateful and intolerant. You needn’t share other people’s interests, beliefs, biologically determined sexual preferences or lifestyle, but you do need to let them be who they are. That’s called freedom. Adults are not immune to being bullies, and our children are listening and watching closely.

Monitor your kids’ behaviour. Implement internet monitoring measures if you feel this is necessary, but most important, listen to children and watch how they behave. Don’t let bad behaviour or hateful speech go by unnoticed. That’s your job as a parent, teacher, or member of the community.

Support non-profit organizations that educate children about bullying. PREVnet is one such organization that provides supports to prevent and address bullying, in partnership with 62 expert researchers from 27 Canadian universities and 49 national organizations. Trust me, we need organizations like this in our world.

Show kids you care. Be available to the children you know, to listen, encourage, model positive behaviours and attitudes, and show them the world sees a wonderful future ahead for them. Pave the way, because they are our future. All of them.