She was only 13 at the time, but the picture went viral at Shields Middle School in Ruskin, where she was a student in spring 2009. After sending a topless photo to her boyfriend on his cellphone, and enduring months of taunts from other students, Hope Witsell committed suicide by hanging herself in her bedroom.
“They were spitting on her, shoving her into lockers and threatening to stab her,” said her mother Donna Witsell, who, six years later, is still trying to heal from her daughter’s death.
Witsell became an activist against cyberbullying, speaking to students in Florida schools to tell them it doesn’t have to happen to them. “They have that power, they have that control to hit delete. They have the power to stop hate,” said Witsell.
When we think of bullying, we often think of physical altercations in the hallways of schools. But today, with cellphones, computers and digital technology, bullying can take place in cyberspace — on Facebook, Myspace, Snapchat, Twitter and Instagram.
Surprisingly, a growing number of bullies in schools are now girls. Sparking a national effort to combat this, Camp Royal in Tampa has made it its mission to build young girls’ self-esteem before they fall prey to bullying, by allowing teens to be mentored by others who have faced and overcome similar challenges.
Childhood obesity and feeling like an outsider can also contribute to bullying. In 2012, the Quinton Aaron Foundation in Tampa was established to raise awareness on this issue.
“Kids are killing themselves because of being picked on,” said Quinton Aaron, best known for his role as football player Michael Oher opposite Sandra Bullock in the 2009 film The Blind Side. Aaron has developed a social media app for parents to help alert them when their child is being targeted by a cyberbully. He has toured dozens of cities around Florida, talking to kids about how to stand up to bullying.
With the expanded use of technology, cyberbullying has become increasingly common. Awareness has also risen, due in part to high-profile cases like the suicide of Tyler Clementi, an 18-year-old student at Rutgers University, who jumped to his death from the George Washington Bridge in September 2010. Clementi’s roommate, Dharun Ravi, had used a webcam on his dorm room computer to view Clementi in an intimate moment with another male student, which he then posted on Twitter.
The national list of suicides that have been attributed to cyberbullying is rapidly growing. Jadin Bell, 15, was an Oregon youth who hung himself from the play structure at the local elementary school in 2013. Bell’s father stated: “He was hurting so bad. Yes, there were other issues, but ultimately it was all due to the bullying.”
Ryan Patrick Halligan from Essex Junction, Vt., committed suicide at age 13 after being bullied by his classmates online. In 2008, his suicide and its causes were examined in a segment of the PBS Frontline television program Growing Up Online.
Megan Meier of Missouri died in 2006, a few weeks before her 14th birthday. A year later, Meier’s parents initiated an investigation into her suicide, which was attributed to cyberbullying through the social networking website Myspace.
In 2014, Lamar Hawkins took his own life with his father’s gun in a Sanford, Fla., school bathroom stall. Lamar’s family sued the Seminole County School Board, alleging that teachers and administrators didn’t do enough to prevent the bullying that led to the 14-year-old’s death.
When asked how to handle a cyberbully when faced with one, local students had varying opinions.
“If you put it out there, you’ve made the choice to put yourself at risk,” said HCC student Brione Adams. “As a psychology major, I would rather focus on the bullies, and ask why do they do it?”
“I think there should be consequences,” said HCC student Aaron Zais. “But it’s a complicated issue, and there’s no quick and easy fix.”
What Is cyberbullying?
Cyberbullying is the use of electronic devices — computers, cell phones, instant messaging, email, chat rooms or social networking sites to harass, threaten or intimidate someone. It is one of the fastest growing forms of bullying, and the most pervasive and widespread.
Tips to help stop cyberbullying for kids and teens from ConnectSafely.org
Know that it’s not your fault. Don’t blame yourself. No one deserves to be treated cruelly.
Don’t respond or retaliate. Sometimes a reaction is exactly what aggressors are looking for because they think it gives them power over you, and you don’t want to empower a bully. As for retaliating, getting back at a bully turns you into one — and can turn one mean act into a chain reaction.
Save the evidence. The only good news about bullying online or on phones is that it can usually be captured, saved and shown to someone who can help. You can save that evidence in case things escalate. [Visit ConnectSafely.org/cyberbullying for instructions on how to capture screens on phones and computers.]
Reach out for help — especially if the behavior is really getting to you. See if there’s someone who can listen, help you process what’s going on and work through it — a friend, relative or an adult you trust.
Use available tech tools. Most social media apps and services allow you to block the person. Whether the harassment is in an app, texting, comments or tagged photos, do yourself a favor and block the person. You can also report the problem to the service. That probably won’t end it, but you don’t need the harassment in your face, and you’ll be less tempted to respond. If you’re getting threats of physical harm, you should call your local police (with a parent or guardian’s help) and report it to school authorities.
Protect your accounts. Don’t share your passwords with anyone — even your closest friends, who may not be close forever — and password-protect your phone so no one can use it to impersonate you.
If someone you know is being bullied, take action. Just standing by can empower an aggressor and does nothing to help. The best thing you can do is try to stop the bullying by taking a stand against it. If you can’t stop it, support the person being bullied. If the person is a friend, you can listen and see how to help. If you’re not already friends, even a kind word can help reduce the pain.
Additional advice for parents
Know that you’re lucky if your child asks for help. Most young people don’t tell their parents about bullying at all. So if your child is losing sleep or doesn’t want to go to school or seems agitated when on his or her computer or phone, ask why as calmly and open-heartedly as possible. Feel free to ask if it has anything to do with mean behavior or social issues. But even if it does, don’t assume it’s bullying. You won’t know until you get the full story, starting with your child’s perspective.
Work with your child. There are two reasons why you’ll want to keep your child involved. Bullying and cyberbullying usually involve a loss of dignity or control over a social situation, and involving your child in finding solutions helps him or her regain that. The second reason is about context. Because the bullying is almost always related to school life and our kids understand the situation and context better than parents ever can, their perspective is key to getting to the bottom of the situation and working out a solution. You may need to have private conversations with others, but let your child know if you do, and report back. This is about your child’s life, so your child needs to be part of the solution.
Respond thoughtfully, not fast. What parents don’t always know is that they can make things worse for their kids if they act rashly. A lot of cyberbullying involves somebody getting marginalized (put down and excluded), which the bully thinks increases his or her power or status. If you respond publicly or if your child’s peers find out about even a discreet meeting with school authorities, the marginalization can get worse, which is why any response needs to be well thought out.
More than one perspective needed. Your child’s account of what happened is likely completely sincere, but remember that one person’s truth isn’t necessarily everybody’s. You’ll need to get other perspectives and be open-minded about what they are. Sometimes kids let themselves get pulled into chain reactions, and often what we see online is only one side of or part of the story.
What victims say helps most is to be heard — really listened to — either by a friend or an adult who cares. That’s why, if your kids come to you for help, it’s important to respond thoughtfully and involve them. Just by being heard respectfully, a child is often well on the way to healing.
The ultimate goal is restored self-respect and greater resilience in your child. This, not getting someone punished, is the best focus for resolving the problem and helping your child heal. What your child needs most is to regain a sense of dignity. Sometimes that means standing up to the bully, sometimes not. Together, you and your child can figure out how to get there.
One positive outcome we don’t often think about is resilience. We know the human race will never completely eradicate meanness or cruelty. We also know that bullying is not “normal” or a rite of passage. When it happens and we overcome it — our resilience grows. We grow it through exposure to challenges and figuring out how to deal with them. So sometimes it’s important to give them space to do that and let them know we have their back.
Printed with permission from ConnectSafely.org © 2013
When to report cyberbullying to law enforcement
When cyberbullying involves the following activities, it is considered a crime and should be reported to law enforcement:
• Threats of violence
• Child pornography or sending sexually explicit messages or photos
• Taking a photo or video of someone in a place where he or she would expect privacy
• Stalking and hate crimes
Some states consider other forms of cyberbullying criminal. Consult your state’s laws and law enforcement for additional guidance.
Report cyberbullying to schools
Cyberbullying can create a disruptive environment at school and is often related to in-person bullying. The school can use the information to help inform prevention and response strategies. In many states, schools are required to address cyberbullying in their anti-bullying policy.
Cyberbullying and the law
Because cyberbullying and other forms of electronic aggression are growing, most states have enacted anti-bullying legislation, and many schools and districts are also developing policies. This is a particularly challenging issue for schools because:
• It often happens “off campus” (unless school computers or other school hardware is used)
• The aggressors/perpetrators are not easy to identify
• Targeted students are often reluctant to report the incident(s)
• First Amendment free-speech protection afforded to aggressors/perpetrators