Another Cyberbullying Case Resulting in Suicide; WHO IS TO BLAME?

by Pat VanHall

In the fallout of the recent suicide of 12-year-old Rebecca Sedwick, from Lakeland Florida, the finger pointing has begun. Police, after making two arrests of a 14-year-old and a 12-year-old, believe the relentless bullies are to blame. The parents of one of the two alleged bullies (who both face felony charges) are deflecting blame to Facebook claiming a hack of their daughter’s account. The father of the younger of the two arrested bullies has been quoted in saying that “he wishes he could have done more” but his lack of social media savvy prevented him from knowing about the bullying. The school district, which “did all it could” to stop the bullying in school, claims it didn’t know about the cyberbullying. All of this, in light of bullying legislation already enacted in Florida which was amended as of July 1, 2013 to include cyberbullying. So what else can we do?

Across the country states are taking direct aim at cyberbullying and new bills (Wisconsin passed such a bill on October 10th) look to add cyberbullying, texting, and social media language to fully encompass this issue. The main question still remains; will more criminalization of cyberbullying help? Will tweens and teens be deterred by threat of legal consequences? It clearly didn’t help in Florida. I think the bigger problem that schools face is how they will go about monitoring a student’s account once a report of bullying has been made. In my opinion there still remains an enormous divide among generations when it comes to social media know-how. This is my own generalization, but I believe the percentage of students in middle school that are not proficient with at least one type social media (Facebook, Twitter, MySpace, and the like) probably isn’t that far off from the percentage of middle school teachers that are proficient with one or more of the platforms.
The parents of the bullies in this case are a prime example of this dilemma. One parent wishes he knew more about Facebook so he could have done something to prevent it. The other set of parents is claiming a Facebook hack of their daughter’s account insisting that they check her account every day. Both statements seem highly unlikely based on some of the posts the media has shown taken from their daughters account (pictured in the gallery here). So how do we expect teachers and school administrators to be able to monitor the students’ accounts if the parents are unsuccessful in doing so? Facebook used to have age limits (which they clearly cannot revert to) and they do have parental controls, but do parents even know about them? Should there be an age limit that requires parental consent and monitoring for a pre-teen to set up an account? Would that help? I’m not sure what the answer is, but tragic cyberbullying examples like Rebecca Sedwick are indications that things are not getting any better.