As an educator, an occasional presenter on cyberbullying and internet safety, as well as an adjunct professor of school law, I have become far too familiar with the many sad stories of young people making mistakes as they navigate their increasingly complex technological world.
The tragic suicide of 15-year old Amanda Todd in Canada sets an unfortunate new low standard with regard to the dangers, perils and pitfalls of children trying to live their lives in the modern day fish bowl that is the Internet era. Indeed one of the media accounts I encountered had the simple but profound title: “Did the Internet Kill Amanda Todd?”
Although that may be hyperbole, the reality is that Todd’s case does show the increasing risks for children with regard to technology and the internet, as well as the ugly underbelly of human society that often manifests itself in predatory and anonymous antagonistic behavior online.
And, like the sad deaths of Megan Meier and Phoebe Prince in this country, the suicide of Todd again demonstrates that children struggling with social and emotional issues are at an increased risk of having their ‘real life’ problems exponentially worsened by mistakes and missteps online.
Although Todd’s story has been largely told as a bullying tale, it began as a twelve-year old girl being taken advantage of by an unscrupulous and anonymous predatory adult male. Convinced to flash her breastsduring an internet chat, this one moment came back to haunt Todd as the stalker attempts to blackmail her for further favors, then spitefully disseminates the picture to Todd’s circle of friends and schoolmates, information readily available in this ‘interconnected age’.
In her chilling video, Todd acknowledges a painful reality that has become obvious to far too many naïve children, proclaiming: “I can never get that picture back. It is out there forever.”
In an attempt to flee from her humiliation, Todd moves to another school, but discovers a brutal reality of the Internet era; there is no refuge or sanctuary for the victim; as the online taunts and teasing continued despite her desire to escape.
Todd then compounded her problems by ‘hooking’ up with a boy who happened to have a girlfriend. This resulted in a videotaped beating and a barrage of on-line teasing, taunts and ‘slut-shaming’, the misogynistic, almost ritualistic gang tormenting of a young female for her perceived promiscuity or infidelity, while their male counterparts are excused or even glorified for their actions.
In perhaps the most poignant part of her video, Todd’s sadness and loneliness are palpable, as she simply scrawls on a sheet of paper “I thought he really liked me.”
As her family and friends did their best to deal with the unimaginable pain of her suicide, they had to deal with mocking comments on tribute pages, derogatory posts on internet forums, and insulting pictures created and distributed by ‘internet trolls’.
These trolls represent the worst of the Internet, and most likely, society. They hide behind the cloak of anonymity to spew venom and ugliness, taking some sort of perverse joy in the pain and misfortune of others.
The internet troll is perhaps best epitomized by recently revealed uber-troll Michael Brutsch, a paunchy, middle-aged man who enjoyed spending his free time posting scantily-clad pictures of teenage girls stolen from their unsecured Facebook or Instagram pages and moderating lewd conversations about them on Reddit groups such as ‘Jailbait’.When this got boring, typical troll behavior moves on to collecting and posting surreptitiously taken pictures of unsuspecting women on a forum called ‘creepshow’ or creating memes about the suicide of an unstable fifteen-year old.Perhaps the time has come for us to stop being shocked by nasty, virulent, bullying behavior on the Internet and accept the fact that behavior on the Internet is simply a reflection of a society that is losing its grasp on the fundamental concepts of privacy, compassion and humanity.It was interesting to see ‘Sesame Street’ become a political tennis ball during the current presidential campaign because, regardless of your politics, it can at least be acknowledged that the iconic children’s show at least tries to establish a foundation of civility and respect in kids.And as stories like Amanda Todd’s become tragically more commonplace, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, continues to call for a world that is more ‘interconnected’. What he neglects to add is that a more interconnected world makes more money for him and his shareholders, as people are peddled as products in a marketing platform thinly veiled as social networking.
Michael Nitti, Superintendent of Schools