12-year old Rebecca Sedwick, 13-year old Hope Witsel, 13-year old Megan Meier, 14-year old Viviana Agguirre, 15-year old Audrie Pott, 15-year old Amanda Todd, and the list goes on and on and on. All teenagers. All bullied. All dead. All by suicide.
In breaching the topic of the effects of students’ digital actions, we must tread lightly with the subject of how severe cyber bullying (or any form of bullying for that matter) can hurt another person. We don’t want students operating out of the same fear adults might be instilling into them regarding their digital footprints. Teachers and adults can’t go around telling students that every mean thing they say will wind up killing another human being, for these are the more severe examples. Nevertheless, we should let them know that every word or action they engage in has that potential, so they should choose their words carefully.
In cyber bullying, the perpetrators (along with their parents and lawyers) often express disbelief afterwards that they didn’t think the accused’s words or actions could have hurt the other as much. They say they were only joking, it was just a prank or that the action was mutual. They often say that they didn’t actually mean those words literally, but were just expressing anger and frustration.
They say anything and everything that will potentially alleviate accountability and responsibility on their behalf for the actions they have consciously engaged it. In essence, they claim ignorance. By default, they claim innocence. In truth, they are not.
We, as teachers, parents and concerned adults, need to eliminate the claim of ignorance which too often leads to innocence on the perpetrators behalf while implying guilt upon the victim. We also need to re-label and redefine the language we use to describe these actions and behaviors to eliminate an overused, often misinterpreted and subjectively potent word: cyber bullying.
The word cyber is an outdated word that resonates little with today’s youth. We have equally overused the word bullying to the point of it becoming meaningless. Whether adults call it bullying, students call it drama, their parents call it a prank or the next generation calls it something completely different, we should all be under a common agreement of what it entails. And this is where we as adults, have not only the right, but the responsibility to define the actions and words that can be found under this behavioral umbrella. Let’s reformulate the language we use to describe it so students (and their parents) can’t sidestep accountability and understanding through subjective definitions. Let’s make the definition broad and encompassing and call it what it is at its root: digital abuse.
The word abuse means, “to treat in a harsh or harmful way; to use so as to injure or damage; to attack in words, and to use wrongly,” among other definitions. Wouldn’t digital abuse be a more apt description of the type of behavior we are referring to?
If you kill someone unintentionally, but do so out of an illegal or irresponsible action, you are charged with manslaughter. It doesn’t matter if you just had a few beers and thought you were fine to drive or if you were only going seven over the speed limit.
The fact is, although there was no intention to kill another human, you fully assumed your role in the crime when you engaged in the irresponsible behavior. What if we began to look at the more serious cases of digital abuse like we look at drunk and reckless driving? What if we started upholding the same expectations and consequences for online behavior as we do for physical behavior? What if we started charging those who abuse others online to the point of their suicide with digital manslaughter?
Incidents such as vehicular manslaughter and DUI manslaughter are sad and unfortunate events on both sides of the story. Family and friends must grieve the loss of a loved one whose life was taken away far too soon through no fault of their own. From the other side, too often we hear of a driver who made one irreparable choice on an unfortunate night while making thousands of altruistic and loving ones the rest of their life.
But the simple fact remains that those who caused the death of another knew full well about the potential consequences of their actions when they were choosing them. They have little room for excuse and must face accountable action for their decisions that killed another human being.
In a similar fashion, we need to put to rest the bed of excuses, finger pointing and ignorance claiming with digital abuse and digital manslaughter, no matter what the age. What happens when a sixteen year old goes to a party, leaves drunk and kills an innocent pedestrian? What happens when a fifteen-year old borrows his moms’ car, drives recklessly on icy roads, loses control and crashes into a family van? In these cases, they made a really poor choice which ended in someone else’s death, and that was never their intention. But you can’t tell me that they were not aware of the possible outcome when they engaged in the action. If society assumes that teenagers are responsible enough to control 3,000-pound missiles, we should also expect them to be responsible enough to control their mouth (and their keystrokes) to the point of not abusing others to their death.
If we explore this potentiality even further, we see that there are differing degrees of intention that can be assigned to the perpetrator based on the voluntary or involuntary nature of the manslaughter. When someone kills another human due to vehicular manslaughter or DUI manslaughter, they are not trying to harm or injure another human, but they do. But, what about when someone is digitally abusing them? Could we say the same thing about them? Are they trying, or not trying, to harm or injure another human through their words and actions?
When one goes out of their way to repeatedly hurt another, physically, mentally or emotionally, they should be considered guilty of abuse.
However, knowing where and when the line of abuse starts opens us up to a vast and dynamic grey area because of the unknown emotional or mental duress one’s comments could have on the other. We don’t know, and can never claim to know, the level of resilience, sensitivity, stability, family situation or breaking point of another individual. We don’t know the weight our comments or actions might have upon another, which makes this a grey area where objectivity has little residence. It is also why we should err on the side of caution, and choose to be safe rather than sorry (for their sake, and our own).
A responsive societal intervention that goes beyond education might put a halt to the destructive patterns we are increasingly seeing through the digital world. For this to happen, legal consequences will have to support the ongoing education. And these legal consequences should not just start at eighteen. If digital abuse is happening, a teenager should be arrested and charged in the same fashion they would for other crimes. If digital abuse is so pervasive and severe that is causes someone to kill themselves, then it should be considered digital manslaughter and the culprits should face appropriate consequences.
Records of those found guilty of digital abuse and digital manslaughter should not be kept private. Their names should not be withheld from public view. It is unbelievable that a minor can get away with such atrocious acts and knowingly not face any repercussions because they are under eighteen. Why is it that the day someone turns an arbitrary number, they are absolved of all wrongdoing committed in the months and years prior? Upon turning eighteen, records of digital abuse or digital manslaughter convictions should not be expunged from the perpetrator’s file. The crimes should remain on their record until they have reached twice their age from the time the crime was committed, assuming a clean record afterwards.
In the most serious and publicized examples of digital abuse, a victim takes their own life due to the tormenting they receive from their peers. In more common instances, these forms of digital abuse are not reported (due to fear of more severe peer consequences) and the emotional trauma is repressed. In these cases, the trauma that is caused by others corrosively affects the rest of the victim’s life through psychological and emotional disorders. These disorders not only have a direct effect on the individual and their family unit, but also an indirect effect on the social system as a whole.
In order to avoid these consequence for all parties involved, we need to ensure that we are educating our youth about the potential severity their words and actions can have on others. There are ways we can introduce this gently and carefully, as early as the third grade, as this is when many friendship dramas with girls begin. It should be done with the expertise and guidance of school counselors in a graceful, honest and psychologically appropriate manner.
If we openly discuss and examine some of the more extreme examples of when children are so hurt by the actions of others that they look for escape through their own death, students might begin to see a window into the lives and emotions of others. This could first give rise to a metacognitive pause before speaking or acting. Second, understanding the pain all parties involved have gone through in previous fatalities could bring more empathetic action into their own lives.
If it does not serve any emotive shift in their feelings towards another, at the very least, knowledge that their words and actions have the potential to drive someone to suicide might cause them to think twice. And with a full understanding that, in rare instances, their words and actions can kill (or indirectly contribute to it), it lays down the foundation for personal accountability that awaits them should they choose to participate in digital abuse. We do not always refrain from drinking and driving due to empathy alone. Sometimes, we don’t drink and drive because of the consequences it would have on us more than the potential havoc it could wreak on the lives of others. This is where legal consequences can aid in establishing a no-excuse policy should one consciously and voluntarily engage in digital abuse.
Open and honest dialogue about the mistakes others have made in the past, such as those who voluntarily share nude photos of themselves with others, might give pause to those young women who are considering doing it themselves. Many of these girls brought such intolerable suffering upon themselves through their own volition, in part due to ignorance of the Internet’s power. Looking at where others have stumbled and how certain choices have forever changed their lives might allow for a metacognitive reflection before potentially traversing down the same path.
For boys, separate education about what the law would entail would be equally beneficial. This could examine what it means to be complicit in an act, and what would infer indirect or direct participation. In the same way someone avoids being around drugs if they don’t want to risk the consequences of possession, paraphernalia or distribution, digital abuse should instigate the same responses. The reception of a defamatory photo sent by another is not a crime. However, what should be a crime is the passing of said photo along to others, knowing that the photo contains nude or illegal evidence that could cause serious embarrassment and mental/emotional distress.
Just like we need to adapt our teaching to the shifting landscape (one moving from less interaction in a physical place to more interaction in a digital space), we also should expect the same of the laws that protect citizens. As educators, we should go beyond the superficial and vanilla approach of simply saying, “Don’t say mean things because it could cause someone to feel bad,” or “Once it’s goes online, you can’t erase it.” Instead, we should call a spade a spade and explicitly teach and exemplify how deep a wound one can create upon others; sometimes, to the point of suicide.
Digital abuse can drive some students to take their own lives. In this case, it’s not bullying, drama or pranking anymore. It’s manslaughter. And any human, regardless of their age, should be held accountable for being that mean.