It seems to happen often enough that we're no longer shocked to hear it: A teenager commits suicide after being bullied online by peers.
But the recent death in Florida of 12-year-old Rebecca Ann Sedwick and arrest of two of her former middle school classmates makes it clear that victims are getting younger and bullies more brazen online.
Two girls, 12 and 14, have been charged with felony aggravated stalking based on evidence of a year of online taunts and threats. Sheriff's deputies confiscated the cellphones and laptops of more than a dozen girls accused of bullying Rebecca and found messages such as "You should die."
This may be the first time children have been accused of a crime in connection with suicide. But it's also a window into bigger issues that criminal charges can't resolve:
The tools and tenor of bullying are different and more dangerous in this generation than they were in mine. Anti-bullying programs are good but not enough. We rely on them to promote empathy and respect for those who don't fit in. But it's not just misfits singled out for torment; it can be anybody that somebody doesn't like.
The same sort of crowd-sourcing that helps startups thrive can turn a middle school clique into an online mob.
It's easy for bullies to enlist allies who can just post something nasty — even anonymously — online, instead of risking an unpleasant confrontation face to face. And it's hard for victims to hide from insults delivered 24-7 on their cellphones.
Parents are clueless about the culture and temptations online.
The 14-year-old charged with stalking displayed a stunningly callous message on her Facebook page just after Rebecca died. "Yes [I know] I bullied REBECCA nd she killed her self but [I don't care]," it said. The message ended with a little pink heart.
Her parents insist that the teenager is "a loving, caring, supportive young girl with many friends." Her Facebook page must have been hacked, they said. But when the sheriff asked them to bring her in for a talk, they refused and lawyered up.
Rebecca's mother knew she was being bullied. She pulled Rebecca from school and taught her at home, monitored her Facebook page and took away her cellphone. But when things calmed down, she loosened the reins and Rebecca went back online.
Rebecca posed questions about suicide, set up new social media accounts, even made a screen saver with a photo of her head resting on railroad tracks. She called herself "That Dead Girl" on one of her secret online sites that her mother never saw.
Rebecca attended a school that discouraged bullying. Her mother tried to protect her.
But careful parenting and school assemblies are no match for an adolescent ethos where nastiness is acceptable and being popular means everything.
Our culture is part of the problem.
Our children grow up watching reality shows where boorish behavior is rewarded and insults, taunts and racist remarks hike ratings and create stars. And nothing is off-limits for criticism on countless makeover programs. Your clothes, your voice, your cooking, your weight … judges find fault with everything, while contestants try not to cry.
Then there are the marathon sessions that boys spend with popular violent video games, where beating and raping women is an entertaining backdrop. The latest installment of Grand Theft Auto raked in $1 billion in three days. And we wonder why teenage boys might think it's all right to have sex with a drunken 14-year-old girl.
Middle school has never been a very easy passage. But it's been made harder by social media, which invites immersion and seclusion at a time when teenagers should be learning to actually talk with one another.
Rebecca's case shows that online connections can be both a noose and lifeline.
She was shunned by her real-life best friend, the 12-year-old charged with tormenting her. The girl feels terrible about Rebecca's death, investigators said. She told them she was more afraid of becoming a target of bullies herself than she was aware of just how much pain she might have been causing Rebecca.
Rebecca responded by seeking solace from far-flung friends she knew only online. They listened, liked her and didn't judge her face, her weight, her skin.
But being online meant being vulnerable to former classmates' cruel and endless taunts. One message read: "nobody cares about you." Her response: "Lol I know."
But she wasn't laughing when she reached out for one last time, to a boy from North Carolina that she'd met when their paths crossed randomly in an airport.
"I'm jumping. I can't take it anymore," she wrote in a message he received the day she jumped to her death from a silo in an abandoned cement factory near her home. He apparently told no one. Maybe because he didn't know anyone in her life to warn.
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