Today, Rebecca Ann Sedwick should be eating cupcakes leftover from her 13th birthday party. But rather than celebrating with Rebecca this past Saturday, her friends and family wrote messages of support on an anti-bullying Facebook page established in her name. After months of being harassed by her friends-turned-tormentors on social media apps and sites like Kik Messenger and Ask.fm, Rebecca took her own life on September 9th. She was only 12 years old.
In the weeks after Rebecca’s death, there has been a media frenzy surrounding her story as parents and teens ask themselves what they would, or could, have done differently. “It appears that Rebecca’s parents were trying to do everything in their power to resolve the situation. She contacted the school but when the behaviors continued she felt it necessary to remove her daughter from the environment and home-school her. Even with that, the bullying continued,” says Justin W. Patchin, Professor of Criminology and Co-director of the Cyberbullying Research Center at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire.
On October 14th, the Polk County Sheriff’s office arrested two girls, a 12- and 14-year-old, for felony aggravated stalking. In layman’s terms, these girls were arrested for cyberbullying Rebecca. Taking legal action may seem harsh, but according to Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd, it was a social media post from the 14-year-old that forced the Sheriff’s hand. The Facebook comment reads, “Yes IK I bullied REBECCA nd she killed her self but IDGAF” (IK = “I know”, and IDGAF = “I don’t give a [expletive]”). This kind of behavior is undeniably insensitive and cruel, even for a 14-year-old, but is it criminal?
“What they did was wrong and requires intervention and appropriate discipline,” says Patchin. “I’m not sure, however, that prosecuting them criminally brings us any closer to solving this problem among teens. It is unlikely to deter them from future misbehavior (any more than other school and family responses), and is even less likely to deter others from similar behaviors. In general, an adolescent’s behavior is more influenced by caring adults and peers than the threat of legal sanction.”
It seems that Judd would agree, saying “we can save kids’ lives and I think we can do it without calling the police and without making criminals out of kids.”
Many have moved to place blame on the parents involved. The question is valid, though: Why did these girls still have access to social media? Could their parents really not have known what their children were doing on their phones and laptops? Unfortunately, it seems frighteningly easy to remain in the dark about what your teen may be doing online. Even Rebecca’s mother, Tricia Norman, admits that she hadn’t even heard of some of the newer apps that were being used to torment her daughter.
“I can tell you this: the first line of defense is parents. Parents need to pay attention. They need to quit being their child’s best friend and be their child’s best parent. That’s what they need to do. So it starts at home,” Judd told First Coast News. So what can we do, as parents, teachers, and role models, to keep cyberbullying out of our teens’ lives?
Here are our three tips for staying aware and staying involved in your teens’ online lives:
1. Respect your teen’s privacy, but make sure they know that what they put online isn’t private. The Internet is an incredible and powerful tool, but makes it all too easy to overshare in a permanent way. They should know that you reserve the right to check in on their social media accounts whenever you deem necessary. If the whole world can see it, so can you.
2. Pre-plan your reaction. You may very well find something you don’t want to see on your teen’s phone or computer. Play out the scenarios in your mind so that they don’t catch you off guard, and you don’t react in the heat of the moment. Hopefully, you won’t ever have to.
3. Don’t be afraid to set limits. It’s true: Phones are likely an important part of your teen’s social life. But that doesn’t mean you can’t establish no-phone hours or off-limits apps. In the same way that you might keep an extra eye out for their new friend who seems like a bad influence, trust your gut when it comes to apps and online use, and tread carefully. If you have a bad feeling about something online, there’s no reason to let your teen test your intuitions.
Do you think that the girls who bullied Rebecca should be charged as criminals? How do you talk to your teens about cyberbullying? Join the conversation in the comments below.