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Two prominent stories about anti-gay cruelty, one concerning a tragic suicide, point to an urgent need for us all to act – demonstrate kindness and create a culture of respect in families, schools, and online communities! The need for it is urgent.

By Anne Collier

Two national news stories this week – one about anti-gay cruelty that ended in a young man’s suicide in New Jersey (see the New York Times) and the other about anti-gay hate speech from an assistant attorney general in Michigan (see this CNN blog) – indicate a serious need for family discussions about hate speech and bullying, how they are hurtful and destructive to everyone (adults, children, communities, countries and our world), online as well as offline. This week’s stories illustrate how much bullying and hate speech are targeted at people of all ages who are gay, lesbian, and transgender. “One of every two non-heterosexual youths are regular victims of cyberbullying,” Time’s Healthland reports in its story about 18-year-old Tyler Clementi, who committed suicide after Webcam footage of him kissing another male student was distributed by his roommate. Time was citing a study at Iowa State University, published last May in the International Journal of Critical Pedagogy. It found that young people often feel paralyzed in the face of bullying and cyberbullying, “with more than half indicating their parents were powerless to stop the victimization and 57% doubting a school official could help them.” The study’s lead author, Prof. Warren Blumenfeld at Iowa State, told Healthland that targets fear that if they tell parents or school officials about what they’re dealing with, the bullying will get worse.

I urge parents and educators to read these tragic stories with their young people, making this the central talking point: Those are human beings with feelings behind the text messages, profiles, avatars, Webcams, and chat windows with which we interact – whether or not we can see them, whether or not we feel anonymous. How good or bad our and their experience in media and so-called real life is depends entirely on how we all treat one another. Because what we do in digital media moves so fast, goes so far, and can affect so many people so intensely, it is more important than ever that we think about this before we click, post, and act – think not just about the consequences to us but to fellow human beings and our communities.

The main subject of these stories is not technology but inhumanity. If the problem’s not in focus, how can we go in and fix it? Technology can amplify and perpetuate cruelty as well as expose it (the exposure is disturbing but necessary and part of solution development). Sadly, technology can also distribute cruelty so fast that it can be exposed repeatedly, hurtfully, even after haters see and regret their mistakes. But because of this blend of inhumanity and technology, no single person, law, policy, family, school, or government can solve this problem by himself or itself. Parents, don’t wait for the school to. Schools, don’t wait for parents to. Students, don’t wait for the other kid to get a clue. Let’s start NOW to fix this problem ourselves – and to use technology to stop the hate and be good to one another. Every single one of us is needed.

Related links

* “What [students who admit to cyberbullying] tell us is, first of all, they don’t really see it as something wrong…. They think it’s funny. They don’t think they’re going to get caught because they can kind of hide behind the anonymity of the technology, and they really don’t see it as that big of a deal,” Dr. Justin Patchin, co-director of the Cyberbullying Research Center, told NPR, exactly echoing what Dr. Carrie James said her research team was hearing from young people. See this about why online safety education doesn’t work: James said it teaches only “consequence thinking” – the consequences of people’s online behavior for themselves, not for their peers or communities. Parents and educators, we have work to do! We need to model as well as teach what James calls moral and ethical thinking too!
* Perspective from Prof. Paul Butler at George Washington University Law School: “Suicide is a tragic response to bullying. It is also a rare response. Of the millions of children who suffer bullying, few take their own lives.” [New York Times, 9/30/10]
* A commentary on the Tyler Clementi story from Prof. Warren Blumenfeld at Iowa State University, lead author of the bullying study published last May in the International Journal of Critical Pedagogy
* Annie Fox‘s “Broken Kids Are Breaking All of Us” links to Ellen Degeneris’s powerful videotaped statement about bullying and suicide
* The Youth Voice Project at Penn State, Erie, that surveyed 12,000 students in 25 schools in 12 states reported last year that 42% of students said they reported bullying to an adult at school, and of that 42% only about a third of the situations improved with adult intervention (so “school intervention” is far from a guaranteed solution). [See this post for more on the Youth Voice Project.]
* offers help for teens from SAMHSA (the federal government), the Ad Council and DDB (ad agency), and the Inspire USA Foundation
* The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline – 1-800-273-TALK (8255)
* “‘Recombinant art,’ life?: Parenting & the digital drama overload”
* “Why digital citizenship’s a hot topic (globally)”
* “Citizenship & the social Web mirror in our faces 24/7”

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