Last week, a story about a high school girl named Amanda Todd, a victim of cyber bullying, erupted in our local Vancouver area, then swept across Canada and even got picked up by some American news sources.
In grade 7, Amanda had been reaching out trying to meet new interesting people online. She met someone who told her how stunning she was, who went on to ask her to take her top off and expose herself on webcam. She chose to go along with his request. It was a decision that had dire consequences.
The man recorded her image and later used this to try and coerce her into giving him private strips shows online, threatening to make the image he recorded public. Later that year, it went public. A police officer showed up at her home at 4am during her Christmas break to tell her and her family. That’s when the “bullying” began at her school. She soon developed major depression, anxiety, and panic disorder, and used alcohol and drugs to escape her pain.
A year later, after moving to get away from the pain that came from that photo’s circulation, the perpetrator re-entered her life and created a Facebook page using the photo of her breasts as the profile pic. After starting fresh with a new school and new friends, she was her deprived of her opportunity to start over. She was the target of severe teasing, and was ostracised and isolated at her new school.
Amanda then changed schools a second time. But her past came back to haunt her once again. A “old guy friend” of hers started texting her back and forth, led her on saying he liked her (he already had a girlfriend). He invited her to his place one day and they “hooked up.” Soon after, the boy’s girlfriend and 15 others showed up outside her new school. They circled around her, yelling for her to “look around nobody likes you” in front of 50 people from her new school. Someone yelled for the girlfriend to just punch her already, so she did. She threw her to the ground, punched her several times while kids filmed it, and then everyone left her alone and crying. The teachers ran over but she just laid in a ditch crying, blaming herself for the decisions she made, until her father came for her. When she got home, she drank bleach trying to kill herself.
When she got out of the hospital, she found cruel messages all over Facebook saying she deserved it and how they hoped she was dead. She later moved to another city to live with her Mom, and was doing much bettter but social media brought her nightmare back. Six months later people started posting photos of bleach and ditches, tagging them to her name, saying she should try a different kind of bleach. She made a video (below) and posted it on YouTube, simultaneously crying out for help and trying to help other victims who are going through something similar.
Sadly, her struggle ended in tragedy. On 6pm last Wednesday, Amanda Todd was found dead in her home in Port Coquitlam after committing suicide.
I know that many people may have already heard about her story, but as a blogger, I wanted to do my part to share her story so that her tragic life helps people understand what can be done to prevent these
situations from happening. Situations like Amanda’s are complicated with many different issues at play. Certainly nothing that can be covered by the usual articles written by news agencies. Bear with me as this is a long post, but I wanted to do the topic justice.
More than Simple “Cyber Bullying”
Cyber bullying has become a fashionable term to describe the abusive behaviours of youth using modern technology and the Internet, including the case of Amanda Todd. This term, however, downplays the severity of the what happened. A term like “bullying”, in whatever form, has the connotation that it’s something those hate-mongering youths will simply grow out of. Amanda’s was not a case of casual name-calling. All the nameless youths that participated in Amanda’s defamation, online or in person, all contributed to create the situation that ruined her life and led to her death. This tragedy has left everyone asking, what can be done to stop this from happening? Because it is not a simple situation, there are no simple answers. There are many levels on which the situation can be handled in my mind.
Increasing Awareness of Media Messaging & Societal Influences on Young Women
The modern world bombards young women with messages that a woman’s worth is largely measured by how attractive they are, as well as their acceptance within the social groups that surround them. It’s no wonder that young women feel the urge to fulfil perceived obligations, sexual or otherwise, when the people requesting them are the ones that fill them with a sense of worth, whether the intentions are genuine or not. Young women need to be aware of media messaging and its influence. They need to learn that they don’t have to play out the various roles revolving around pleasing other people to have self-worth as established in popular media. I admit this is a tall order. This sort of thing has started to appear in schools, but parents need to take an active role in teaching this too. Films like Miss Representation are designed to do exactly that. See the trailer below.
Raising Confident, Assertive Young Women
Beyond media and societal awareness, young women need to learn to establish their own self-worth through their own actions and choices. They need to know that they are in control of their minds and bodies. This is not something you can simply tell a child. It is something that needs to be reinforced over time. Children need to be given the opportunity to express themselves and should be encouraged to develop through their interests. This should be done not necessarily with a goal of winning or even achieving, but to learn about themselves and how they want interact with and contribute to the world around them.
Physical activities are great for building physical confidence. Obviously, I’m a great proponent of self-defense oriented martial arts given my background as a Jiu-jitsu instructor, but any physical activity can serve to build confidence if undertaken willingly and with an undertone of personal acceptance, regardless of outcome. This same attitude can be applied to other interests outside of sports too, whether it’s performing arts, visual arts, technological interests, writing, mechanical inclinations, etc. Read 7 Ways to Help Your Child Deal with Bullies for more info.
Teaching Young Men to Respect Women
Education on women’s issues is a 2-sided coin. Young men also need to be taught how media messaging influences the male mindset and how they perceive women. While there has been a lot of progress in this regard over the past 50 years, much of what we see on popular media establishes that to “be a man” you have to be strong, dominant, in a position of power, in every area of their lives, including their relationships with women. Their being “the bigger man” requires the woman to be the lesser woman, whether that comes in the form of income, physical abilities, personal obligations or sexual needs. I’m sad to say that while I’ve heard about of efforts being made to educate young women in schools to be more confident and assertive, I haven’t heard of much effort being made to teach young men to get away from the macho mindset of what their role is in their relationships with women and in their lives as a whole. This being the case, parents should be encouraged to take active measures to teach their boys these things.
Setting a Good Example
Whether you’re teaching young women to be confident and assertive, or young men to adopt a balanced perspective in their expectations of themselves and others, ultimately parents serve as a model for their actions and perspectives. The relationship between a child’s parents plays a strong role in establishing a child’s expectations of themselves and their partner in their future relationships. I don’t want to make a list of “do’s and don’ts” that parents need to follow. If you have a good partner and a healthy, balanced relationship, you probably don’t have to think about this too much. But you may be sending out messages without even realizing it. Here is one useful article about being a role model for young women, and another about being a role model for young men. If you’re spread a little thin and need support to help your daughter or son, Big Sisters and Big Brothers are really helpful for providing good mentors. I am actually in the process of applying to become a big sister myself (*UPDATE: I have been a Big Sister for about 6 months now and am having a great time with it 18/10/2013).
Teaching about the Risks of Online Interactions
All youths should be taught about the potential risks and implications of their interactions online. Once they release their image or thoughts in an online or digital interaction, whether it’s a text message, a photo on Facebook, or an online video chat, it has the potential to be released online and made a permanent fixture on the Internet and a part of their online reputation.
This doesn’t mean staying away from the Internet and digital media altogether, it just means that they should be aware and mindful of what they share and whom they share it with. If they are confident, assertive and not highly dependent on the acceptance of others to establish self-worth, they are less likely to engage in riskier behaviours.
When Bad Things Happen
If women do make the choice to share their bodies online or otherwise and the recipient takes advantage, they should not be labelled as having “asked for trouble” for having made unfortunate choices. People make bad choices all the time but that does not justify the actions of those who take advantage. Yes, sensible safety precautions should be taught and encouraged to our youth, but they shouldn’t be blamed if
they make a slip or misjudge a person’s character. This detracts from the responsibility of the perpetrators. Part of learning to take control of one’s actions means also learning that you can’t control the actions of others, and sometimes they do bad things. And if those bad things are done to you it doesn’t make you a bad person. Women may have important things to learn from such an experience but they shouldn’t be perceived by themselves or anyone as being responsible for their victimization. This perpetuates the idea that women are natural born victims and that it’s our responsibility to “keep out of trouble” rather than making it the responsibility of men not to engage in sexually abusive behaviours.
Stopping Abusive Behaviours in Youth
I don’t like to use the term “bullying” to describe abusive situations like the one Amanda Todd was in, as previously noted. When I think of bullying I think of the name-calling, exclusionary behaviours, and acts intended to humiliate (like being forced into a garbage can) that I experienced in my own youth. These things were all hurtful, and made me miserable for a few years of my life, and they shouldn’t have happened, but it never went beyond what I would consider a youthful indiscretion on the parts of those who “bullied” me. I don’t know what brings a high school aged youth to join in on a chorus of people online telling her that she is so worthless that she should end her life, or to swarm around her and call out encouragement for her to be physically assaulted.
Many parents turn a blind eye to behaviours that constitute “bullying” dismissing it with the mentality that “kids will be kids.” When I chatted with parents about my recent bully-proofing class, I heard a lot about this from parents of bullied children who tried to deal with the parents of the bullies. And anti-bullying initiatives in schools seem to be laughed at derisively by the bullies they’re intended to reach.
I wish there were a simple solution. It seems to me that more and more, kids are growing up with a sense of entitlement and a lack of responsibility for their actions, and as they hit their teen years it has the potential to escalate into serious abusive patterns like the one that Amanda Todd faced. I don’t know how to address this problem in the grand scheme of things. Ultimately, kids who have these abusive behaviour patterns need to face the consequences of their actions, and the earlier in life they do so, the better. Parents, teachers/school officials, the justice system can’t keep passing the buck. They have to start getting involved and taking responsibility for their part in the solution. If they don’t hold the kids responsible, the kids will follow suit and the problem will just repeat itself.
A Call to Social Media Companies
Unfortunately, when abuses happen on the Internet like they did with Amanda Todd, it’s easier for the behaviours to go undetected by those who can help. I’d like to see social media companies like Facebook take a more active role in preventing abuse using their websites. They have a reporting system for abuse, but do they have a screening program that prevents abusive pages from going up in the first place, or one that flags illegal activities to the proper authorities? I don’t know if this is technologically possible or realistic, but I would like to see an effort made.
To close off on this post, I’d like to share Amanda Todd’s memorial Facebook page. I hope we can all learn something from Amanda’s story so her loss was not in vain.