Adolescence is a challenging time for virtually everyone. Discovering yourself, building your own identity, and finding your place in this sometimes confusing world is no easy feat. And along the road to self-awareness, antagonists – better known as bullies – may present themselves in various forms and throw roadblocks in the way of our progress. This can range from abusive words, to malicious behavior and even physical harm. But in this day and age of social networking and interconnectivity, the harassment and cruelty can linger forever with no relief in sight for the young victim. As the tragic suicide of Rutgers University's Tyler Clementi clearly exemplifies, the results can be devastating for all parties involved and for our collective consciousness as well.
When those of my generation and I were coming of age, things were simply, well, much more simple. Although the phenomena of bullying is nothing new and many of us were forced to deal with the matter ourselves as youth, we never faced the daunting reality of a 24/7 world of torture. Finding safety with our parents, friends or at home, we knew that for the most part, the bullying ended when we were in the comfort and security of those that protected us from negativity. But with the advent of text messaging, social media, and other endless forms of communication, the torment of a bully can and does linger forever. More often than not, parents and teachers are unaware of the torture children are suffering with, and when it is reported, it sometimes isn't taken as seriously. Unfortunately, that may be exactly what occurred when young Tyler first requested a room change at Rutgers University.
A few months back, i-SAFE, a non-profit dedicated to educating and empowering youth to safely utilize Information and Communications Technology (ICT), released a startling study on cyber-bullying. Pulling data from approximately 90,000 students from schools in all 50 states, the study found that 44% of children in grades 5-8 and 54% of those in 9-12 said people on the Internet said 'mean or hurtful things about them or others'. And out of this alarmingly high number of cases, only 13% of kids in grades 5-8 reported the incident to a trusted adult, and in grades 9-12 it's even worse with only 8% reporting it.
As technology continues to advance and our children learn new mechanisms of communicating, we must also keep up with the times. We must remain actively involved in their lives and remain cognizant of what they do online. Parental supervision and guidance are unquestionably the greatest assets we have in protecting and assisting the development of our children. But they also serve as the greatest shield to negative forces that attempt to harm and influence them. We must learn to effectively engage with young folks today across all mediums, and simultaneously halt malice behavior wherever we see it – even when it is done at the hands of our own.
While Tyler Clementi's family grieves and searches for answers, the families of the two students charged with violating his privacy are also grappling with the very real notion that the lives of their own children are ruined. There are no winners in this catastrophe. And as the debate surrounding crime and punishment in this case continues, we cannot forget to update our laws to keep up with an ever-changing world. Antiquated legislation is ill equipped to tackle some of the dilemmas of today's society. Without clear, definitive boundaries, codes of ethics and punishment for violations, we will be lost in an endless debate over guilt and innocence. When there is no question over privacy issues, harassment, and cyber-bullying, people will also be less likely to engage in it.
In an era of endless possibilities and emerging technologies, we cannot forget that we must learn to master the number one form of communication – talking to our children. So the next time your son or daughter is at home on the computer, find out what's going on; it may be one of the most important conversations you'll ever have.