Column: Criminal Charges Are the Wrong Response to Online Bullying
After 12-year-old Rebecca Ann Sedwick committed suicide in Florida in September, I asked why kids write cruel taunts online like “Can u die please?” which is what one girl wrote to Rebecca as part of a fight over a boy that police say turned into a vicious spate of bullying.
Now two girls, ages 12 and 14, have been criminally charged with aggravated stalking in Rebecca’s case. The “tipping point,” Sheriff Grady Judd said, was another cruel post the 14-year-old wrote on a social media site this past Saturday: “Yes ik (I know⅜) I bullied Rebecca nd she killed her self but IDGAF (I don’t give a ----).⅜”
“She forced this arrest,” the sheriff said.
I can understand his frustration. And yet: Criminal charges against the kids? Why are we blaming two young teenagers instead of holding the adults around them — their parents! — responsible? Why was this girl back online writing trash like this? Here’s an infuriating sentence from the news story: “Judd said neither family cooperated with investigators, so the girls were placed under arrest Monday, charged with the third-degree felony, detained for a few hours and released to their parents.” Judd also says the girls admitted to harassing Rebecca online before her death. So why didn’t an adult who loves them make sure they apologized and cooperated with the investigation, and prevent them from writing something so callous that it makes the poster seem like a monster? In a situation like this one, parents should be strictly monitoring their kids’ online access.
This is an incredibly loaded case. Technically speaking, charging the girls with stalking doesn’t blame them for Rebecca’s death. But the police and the press are clearly connecting those dots. And yet as Deborah Temkin of the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights wrote when Rebecca’s death began getting press attention:
“Though very apparent that the young girl was targeted through cellphone-based social media, it has also been reported she was hospitalized for mental health and switched schools. It is not clear whether mental health services or other support continued after the youth left the hospital and attended the new school. We also don’t know anything else that was potentially happening elsewhere in the youth’s life. We simply do not know the whole story to be able to say that bullying was the sole cause.”
Temkin also worries that the “bullycide” narrative emphasized in media coverage is becoming its own kind of risk factor for vulnerable kids. “With every additional media report of another youth dying by suicide ‘because of’ bullying we reinforce the notion to at-risk youth that suicide is a normal reaction to bullying, and not only that, these media reports suggest that if they do die by suicide, their name will be known across the country and perhaps the world — something any youth who feels alone and invisible could desire.” That raises the risk of suicide contagion — a real phenomenon, especially for teenagers.
I was recently part of a group that helped develop guidelines for media coverage of bullying and suicide for stopbullying.gov, the federal bullying-prevention website. The guidelines are good, and they’re here. That’s especially important to highlight now, because the media tends to go especially haywire in “bullycide” stories when charges are brought.
And while I know that it’s very hard to try to feel compassion rather than loathing for the 12- and the 14-year-old in this case right now — and that asking for it will be scorned as making excuses for them — I do think we have to try to understand what was going on behind those loathsome posts. When I asked readers to help me make sense of “Can u die please?” I got a response from Caitlin Armtrong, the school counselor at Unaka Elementary School in Elizabethton, Tenn. She asked a seventh-grade class my question, after telling them about Rebecca. Armstrong wrote:
“I had them put their heads down and raise their hand if someone had ever told them they should die or kill themselves. 6 of my 22 raised their hands. When I asked how many of them had said it to someone else, and not in a way like ‘Oh I could kill you’ to their brother or friend, I had 3 willing to admit it.
“They spent the rest of class writing letters to you to answer your question posed at the end of your article.” Here are some excerpts:
Its about popularity. Sometimes, I think people do mean it. They think it will make you feel like a loser if they tell you that you shouldn’t be alive ... and it does.
People ... don’t know that most kids don’t let these things just roll off. They just aren’t thinking.
Kids are mean. It is a simple fact. I’ve been mean. ... No one is listening to us, they think we want attention. We don’t. Nobody cares, so it keeps happening.
Kids say to go kill yourself because they don’t really know you. And if they don’t know you, they really just don’t care what happens to you.
Some kids are just full of hate.
It makes them look cool. It is the meanest thing you can say, so they say it. The meaner you are, the cooler you look.
We have to have more of these kinds of honest conversations with kids. That’s the first step to make suicide-baiting online unacceptable. That’s the key to prevention — not singling out a few kids with criminal charges, but calling on many kids, and adults, to help stamp this out.
Emily Bazelon is a Slate senior editor and writes about law, family and kids. Her new book is Sticks and Stones: Defeating the Culture of Bullying and Rediscovering the Power of Empathy and Character.