It is hard to fathom the grief a parent feels at the death of a child, which was only magnified by the circumstances surrounding the death of Olivia Mae Scott, a 16-year-old student in Bristol. She took her own life on Oct. 9 after she had been subjected to bullying through social media.
It is a form of cruelty and a tragic outcome that have become all too common. Only recently, a case in Florida gained notoriety when two teenage girls were brought up on criminal charges for cyber-bullying that led to the suicide of a teenage girl. A controversy quickly arose over parents’ responsibility to police their children’s activity on the Internet in order to prevent the kind of electronic stalking and intimidation that vulnerable teens find so threatening.
Earlier this week mourners gathered at Mount Abraham Union High School to remember Olivia Mae Scott. She was an athlete who became subject to bullying toward the end of her sophomore year because she was good at basketball, according to Peter Scott, her father. “Another girl hated her because she talked to someone’s boyfriend,” Scott said.
Peer pressure is a term that does not adequately convey the power that teenagers are able to wield against one another. It is a power that feeds on the vulnerability teenagers feel because of their need to belong, fear of isolation, doubt about self, yearning for connection.
Social media have placed the power to inflict harm and the sense of vulnerability on steroids.
It is hard for older people to grasp the degree to which some teens remain tied to the messages they see on their devices, but their vulnerability is all too real. Any older person who has found himself checking his phone or his email for a message, then checking again and again, may get a sampling of the addictive power of electronic devices, a power that is all the more dangerous when the messages one is checking touch on one’s fundamental sense of worth or human connection.
In Bristol, Peter Scott does not have the heart to pursue accusations against his daughter’s tormentors, nor is it evident that there is a criminal case to be made. The bereaved father was more concerned to remember with love the daughter he had lost. “You can’t be angry,” he said. “Anger will eat you up inside.”
But he was interested in getting the message out about the dangers of bullying and the vulnerability that is so easily exploited in the secret world of teenagers’ Internet communications. The message is that parents need to pay attention to what their children are up to and to watch for signs of trouble. Parents who hit a brick wall in seeking to communicate with their kids need to be persistent. There are ways. There is help.
Deaths growing out of cyberbullying are so shocking because they seem to come from nowhere. Suddenly, parents are confronted with the extremity of the torment their children had been experiencing.
Teens may be embarrassed to admit the fear they feel, or they may not know how to break out of the debilitating isolation that they believe has them trapped. Breaking through is the key. Persistence by parents eventually sends a message of love, which can end isolation. Teens need to be made to feel that there are people who care about them and can help them. What appears on Facebook or other websites is not the entire universe. There is a world of adventure and life and discovery and learning and friendship and love out there among real flesh and blood people, all waiting to be experienced.
We are only beginning to reckon with the power of the electronic image or message. The power of the human spirit is stronger if it is harnessed on behalf of good. In time, the bullies who pride themselves on their cruelty will become the pariahs, reined in by a new social norms that put a premium on actual, real human connection.
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