Yesterday was a gray morning. Coffee in hand, I sat down for my daily dose of weather hunk Bob Van Dillen (Good Morning Sunshine, bada bing). Quickly even darker clouds rolled in to blanket my mind when I listened to the story of 15 year old Phoebe Prince. In case you haven’t heard, Phoebe took her own life. Sadly teen suicide isn’t really breaking national news. Phoebe’s story garnered national attention because she was a victim of school bullies armed with cell phones and Facebook pages. High school hazing has gone cyber folks and it’s terrifying. In fact there have been enough cases of tortured young souls seeking final escape that it’s been given it’s own pop culture colloquialism, “bully-cide”.
Even at 38, I carry around scars from my run ins with other children who found their place in the pecking order by feeding on my self esteem. Sixth grade girls where mean. By the time high school rolled around, some had honed their craft so well that they were quite nearly the embodiment of true evil, only sporting pompoms. New to their arsenal of ulcer inducing terrorism was their ability to recruit a coed co-op of sadistic followers. I was followed as I walked home by a truck load of classmates shouting out horrid names and threats that would eventually erupt into physical violence. I’d sit in my 6th period typing class and start to feel dread roll over me at the approach of that last bell, knowing they’d find me again. Shouts of “What you think you’re something? Skank!” were hurled my way on the trek to Mrs. Evanglist’s lit class. I had no clue what I’d done or how to stop this. Heck, I didn’t even know many of my assailants.
On the west side of the school, stood an entire bank of lockers near the math department that I avoided as though it were a lava field. This effected me so deeply that, years later, I’d visit my alma matter and still shutter at that plot of property baking in the sun. Don’t get me wrong I had some great years in high school. Sadly they came only after my willingness to do almost anything, the least of which was the sacrifice of my own self image, to stop the onslaught. The pain and anguish of those years are things I still struggle with to this very day. Sure high school is long over. But, rare is the person that can endure years of being told how ugly, stupid, unworthy or promiscuous they are, no matter how untrue, and walk away unscathed.
My oldest daughter enters middle school next year and for the first time in my life I feel a deep and pervasive fear both for her and for me. How can I help her navigate these waters infested with teenage sharks all to ready to feast upon her sweet soul? Already she struggles with body image issues and her general lack athleticism. In her I see a potential follower. Someone fragile and all too easily hurt by the actions of others. I worry that she may be someone who will all too easily succumb to these terrors. My mother, a strong and intelligent woman, couldn’t save me this pain. How can I save my daughter? Where do I turn for help, what are the warning sings and where does involvement in her life cross a line into interference?
I’ve often heard the argument that this behavior is a “right of passage”. As though it’s something we must all play a part in, in order to earn our certificate and be qualified to go on to adulthood. The perpetrators get a “bully” button and the rest of us get what, years of therapy? Sure, not everyone is going to like you and you need to learn how to navigate that fact. But it crosses a line when those who purportedly “dislike” you, choose to taunt you incessantly, interfere with your education, make you feel unworthy and unsafe not only at school but now no matter where you go. We, myself included, are a wired society. I can’t keep her locked away from the internet and expect that to fix the issue. In fact it has been reported that Phoebe didn’t even have a Facebook page herself. I already monitor my teen son’s Facebook page. I insisted he “friend” me with the understanding that I might see some “teen” behavior. So far, aside from a few f-bombs and a whole lot of “hawt chick” comments, there hasn’t been anything too disturbing. Girls though, we’re different, we’re sneaky and yes we’re mean. What’s a mom to do?
What roll can we expect the already over burdened schools to play? Do companies like Facebook have culpability here? Or is this an even deeper issue that speaks volumes about our society? The victims of this “right of passage” are patted on the shoulder and told to deal with it. After all “it’s life”, right? Yet the ACLU comes running to the defense of detainees who must be afforded the right to not be subjected to cruel taunts and verbal abuse. Where is the protection for our children? Some already fragile who look to us for guidance and receive a “kids will be kids” brush off? Most especially how do we help our daughters? How can we as parents in social media make a change here? I refuse to believe that a country who can put a man on the moon, cure polio and make a tasty fat free cheese cake can’t find a way to make sure that there is never another parent grieving the way Phoebe’s are.
In finishing up this post it occurred to me that just telling my story and sharing my feelings doesn’t go very far towards changing things. I felt compelled to seek out some help, for me and for any of you who might also need a hand. The Online Mom is a comprehensive resource for parents dealing not only with cyber bully issues, but every day navigation of the digital world. Monica, the Online Mom herself, will be hosting one of her weekly discussion on Twitter this evening (Wednesday March 31st) from 9-10 pm eastern. More details here. If you think you might be interested in participating in an online or real world discussion about the issue of bullying, cyber or otherwise, please email me at email@example.com