For Rebecca Ann Sedwick, social media was anything but social.
Instead of exchanging pet videos or giggles about boys or an endless array of selfies, her social media world was cruel and vicious, a hateful, relentless roar. And, in the end, deadly.
Rebecca jumped to her death at an abandoned cement plant in Lakeland, Fla., after a pack of 15 girls bullied her for more than a year, first at school and then online, pursuing her like predators, nipping at her wounded psyche until, finally, she gave up.
She was 12.
Twelve. Think about that, about your own 12-year-old or your 12-year-old niece or nephew or neighbor or the nice 12-year-old who mows your lawn. Then consider what horrific calculus would have to be in play for one of them to take his or her own life.
According to reports from the sheriff investigating her suicide, Rebecca endured months of being “terrorized.” Her family took her out of school and home-schooled her for a time before she enrolled in another school.
The cyberbullying continued.
Interventions from her parents, the school, health professionals, even the sheriff’s office failed. Rebecca talked about hurting herself. She told her mother she was worthless, ugly, stupid.
She changed her name on one app to “That Dead Girl.”
More hate, more noise: Her phone filled with “Why are you still alive?” “Go kill yourself.” “Nobody cares about you.” “I hate you.” “You seriously deserve to die.”
Monday morning she left home without her books. She never got on the school bus. At some point during the day, all her hope gone, she climbed a tower at the old cement plant and jumped.
The monstrous roar went silent.
While Rebecca’s story is tragic, it’s also tragically familiar.
You know the arithmetic: Estimates put the number of students who skip school every day because they are being bullied at 160,000.
Two million young people in the U.S. are victims of bullies, are bullies themselves, or both. Research indicates that on the average playground, someone gets bullied every 37 seconds.
Sometimes kids die, too.
While bullying awareness and anti-bullying programs have increased over the past decade and some research indicates progress, the numbers above are staggering.
Also, some continue to believe bullying to be nothing more than a rite of passage, that victims often mistake “teasing” for something more sinister.
Still others insist you simply cannot draw a straight line between a suicide such as Rebecca’s and bullies.
Perhaps, but no one can convince me that something is not terribly amiss when we continue to bury kids with the same story — Rebecca’s story.
The sheriff is considering charges against the girls under Florida’s anti-bullying laws. That may be appropriate, but the picture is bigger than arrests or even social media.
Blaming new technology for the ease with which we can disrespect, bully and attack each other misses the underlying point. What has happened to our civility, our humanity, our respect?
Step over to the nearest online comment section or Facebook dust-up, and you’ll find a freeway full of malnourished and unjust traffic, from the snarky to the angry to the savage, with a whole bunch of mean and nasty in between.
True, anonymity technology creates a certain bravado in online conversations you would never find face to face. My guess is that more is at work, however.
We need to ask ourselves a critical question: How important is the teaching and honoring of respect — and its bulwark against the breeding of bullies — in our collective psyche?
As someone who long ago tired of reading stories about bullying, stories like Rebecca’s, stories about tragic and deadly solutions to the roar of hate, I’d argue that addressing that question is a good place to start.