The real world of teenage cyberbullying

Amanda Todd didn’t do anything online that most others of her generation haven’t done. That’s what’s so disturbing.


The Canadian public is mourning the loss of Amanda Todd, a 15-year-old teenager from Port Coquitlam, B.C., whose social-media tormentors dared her to take her own life, and rejoiced in cyberspace when she eventually did. Todd died last Wednesday, one month after she posted a heartbreaking eight-minute YouTube confessional about the events that drove her into a severe depression. Over 100 Facebook walls have been erected in Todd’s memory since her death, and some anti-bullying activists have called for Pink Shirt Day, a national anti-bullying initiative, to honour Todd’s memory. NDP MP Dany Morin introduced a motion in the House of Commons that proposes increased funding for anti-bullying organizations as well as an in-depth study of bullying in Canada.

This is all great news. It confirms we’re a well-meaning country: we take care of our own—albeit too late in this case. But it also confirms that Amanda Todd is now an official martyr of the anti-bullying movement, a movement bent on proving that bullying is a social construct, and that perhaps if we all love each other a little more and hug each other a little longer, it will one day disappear.

I’m of the belief that bullying will always exist because so will bullying’s parents—discord and cruelty. But I’m equally uncomfortable with the increasingly common assertion that bullying is a rite of passage; that kids will be kids, and bullies will be bullies. After all, just because something exists, doesn’t mean that we can’t limit its presence. The question is, how do we go about doing that? Unlike Mark Steyn—and anyone else with a crippling fear of political correctness—I don’t think Pink Shirt Day is a scourge, but I do think it’s largely ineffective. Why? Because nobody can see your anti-bullying T-shirt on the Internet, where Amanda Todd was arguably bullied to death.

I came of age on the Internet. Like 43 per cent of kids today, I was a victim of cyberbullying—though I didn’t really think of it as such because the term hadn’t been invented yet. I was also, undoubtedly, a cyberbully. My parents—God bless them—had no idea what I was doing on MSN Messenger and ICQ (precursors to Facebook and Formspring, today’s most popular cyberbullying destinations). When I was eleven, I saw middle-aged men masturbating on webcam. I saw a video of two raccoons mauling each other to death. I saw two boys from my homeroom class strip for me in an online chat room. And I returned the favour. In fact, this was a weekly afternoon ritual for my girlfriends and me. While mom and dad were upstairs watching Frasier, we would be in the basement “exploring” the Internet. Sure, our parents checked in every once in a while (the sound of their footsteps leaving us more than enough time to close the page and delete the history) but it was when we went out, to the movies or a party, that they checked in with greater frequency and angst. “When will you be home?” they’d ask again and again, when what they probably should have been asking was, “Why do you clear the browser history every time you use the computer?” Or “What exactly are you doing down there in the basement?”

The public consensus about Amanda Todd is that she made a mistake by exposing her breasts on the Internet. What isn’t being said, however, and what should be said, is that Todd’s mistake is an extremely common one; one I made several times at her age—and one for which I am extremely lucky to have never paid the price.

And I’m not unique. A recent study by Plymouth University found that 80 per cent of respondents aged 16-24 “used a smartphone or the web for sexual purposes.” In an investigative piece for the Telegraph in July called Let’s Talk about (teen) sex, journalist Clover Stroud writes that half the teenagers she interviewed had “some experience with cybersex.” One subject, an 18-year-old girl named Amber, illustrates this point perfectly. “When we were younger,” she tells Stroud, “we quite often used chatrooms or MSN to flirt with guys. Occasionally this went a bit further, with people taking their tops off on a webcam, for example.” What’s more interesting, however, is what she says next. ‘I think this kind of stuff, like cybersex, happens more as a young teen, between 13 and 15,” she says. “I’d be surprised if this was something my [18-year-old] friends were doing.” Webcam voyeurism, then, is the ‘truth or dare’ of my generation—and, I suspect, will be for every wired generation to come. And the cyberbullying that often accompanies it is this generation’s version of the schoolyard vendetta, only magnified by the breadth of the cyberworld and protected by its anonymity. A recent comprehensive study determined that one out of every five adolescents has at some point cyberbullied someone else. Yet parents are usually shocked to hear that their own kids are preying on the weakest, piling on the vulnerable.

A lot has changed since I was a teenager on the Internet. Photography and photo-sharing is now completely ubiquitous (today’s teens need only look at their own parents’ online behaviour for proof). Yet one thing remains the same: despite Internet parental controls, and increased awareness, most parents still do not monitor their kids as closely online as they do offline. If they did, cyberbullying would not be so endemic.

A recent study by Consumer Reports found that 7.5 million children with Facebook accounts were younger than 13, and that the vast majority of those accounts were unsupervised by the users’ parents. Another study found that 87 per cent of kids surf the Internet without parental rules.

What happened to Amanda Todd was a tragedy that should never happen to another young person again. But the solution to cyberbullying and lewd photo-sharing isn’t outreach. It’s supervision. Where are the parents when these kids are sitting upstairs in their own bedrooms posing topless? Or posting hateful messages on the Facebook page of a girl who was bullied to death? There is nothing at all old-fashioned about parents monitoring their kids. After all, Todd’s biggest bully wasn’t really a bully at all, but an extortionist she didn’t even know.  Parents need to understand that for the first time in history, their kids are more likely to get into trouble in the presumed safety of their own homes than they are in the outside world.

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