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Zak of All Trades: Bullying — This is a trend that has to end

October 18, 2013

There has been much talk surrounding the topic of bullying in the news lately, and unfortunately, it has not come from a positive front of anti-bullying programs succeeding or of someone taking a stand for someone being bullied.

Sadly, the news has surrounded the arrest of two Florida teens who allegedly used the technological advances at their disposal to open up any number of gateways to experience the world to do what so many choose to do with it — bully a peer over the Internet.

That bullying — tragically — is thought to be at least one of the factors that led to the suicide of 12-year-old Rebecca Sedwick.

The saying goes that, "With great power, comes great responsibility," and the Internet and cellphone technology available today has placed great power — quite literally — in the palm of our hands.

Because all are innocent until proven guilty, I am not specifically condemning these girls, but regardless of what happened between the two of them and Sedwick, the result was tragic, and it must cause us to reflect on what could push a girl with so much ahead of her to decide that it wasn't worth it to hang in there.

One of the factors being considered in this case is the online posts made by the two accused via social media sites. Part of the problem, perhaps, lies in the possibilities that the technology available to kids opens up.

It is well-known that kids today know at least just as much, if not more, about the technological than those of us who are older do.

Kids know the ins and outs of their devices and grew up learning privacy settings. They know how to hide the things they want to hide, because they're kids.

And that's what kids do — they test boundaries. And because they have the Internet, they now have an expanded realm to do so.

This week, Facebook opened teenage Facebook settings to expand the visibility of their posts — in a move that I feel goes counter to the goal of keeping the kids safe on the site.

Honestly, I think you should have to be an adult to have an account on these social media sites as it is, but if the children are allowed to have the accounts, then there should at least be a large sense
of accountability there on the parents' behalf.

News just came about on Thursday that the sheriff in the Florida incident — who has been labeled a bit over-zealous by some, but is at least trying to do something about a tragic incident — is considering charging the teens' parents in the incident as well, as they are — in his opinion — not owning up to the fact that their daughters could do something like this.

It is definitely possible that the teens are innocent, and I hope for their sake it comes out that they were, but reports are that at least 15 students teamed up to bully Sedwick, and that is a tragedy, because even if the accounts were hacked, someone had the audacity to say the things that were said to and about her.

Parents, if you do choose to allow your children to have these accounts, please hold them accountable for using them for good. So much is good about social media, and yet, so often, it is used to trash and to harm.

And please, don't be caught under the false premise that your kids would "never do something like that." It's worth checking and being sure, because in so many of these cases, we hear the parents say, "My child would never do that," even when the evidence stacks up against that assumption.

Kids make mistakes, and they shouldn't be treated as if they are terrible people for doing so, but they should know that their mistakes
and choices can lead to dire consequences — both in their lives and in the lives of others. And catching the mistakes early and teaching a lesson can lead to an intervention before the consequences turn to the unthinkable.

I have shared this with you briefly in the past in a Letter from the
Editor, but in case you missed it, I — as a student in high school — was a victim of online bullying. It was not to the extent that it reached in this case by any means, and technology at that time did not have the
same reach and pull that it does today.

But there was a small group of students — none of whom would fit the typical "bully" stature of that day, when we still saw bullies as big, tough guys — who chose me as a simple target, I suppose, to bully via the social media of the day.

There was no Facebook or Twitter, but there were avenues, and they found ways to intrude on those avenues despite privacy settings by being manipulative.

Manipulation leads to harm, and it did in my case.

The good news is I can stand before you today and say that I came out OK. I really did. After putting up with the torment for a while, I found ways to block it out — both online and in my own mind — and get past the bullying. But even now, 15 years later, the mention of any of those kids' names still sends a chill down my spine.

They were cruel; they were harsh; and they took a part of me at a time. I didn't deserve that. No one deserves that.

I was lucky enough to see the good in the friends I had and to have a few friends who stood up for me against those bullies, whether they knew they were doing it or not. It breaks my heart that Rebecca wasn't able to overcome the hurt and the pain.

Just this week, at work, I found myself facing another form of
online manipulation. Someone wasn't happy with the way our policy says we should handle something here at the paper or my willingness to stick by the policy.

And the person's biting tone, harsh words and unfair attacks on my character cut deep.

I held my ground — dispensing the facts, explaining our policy and trying my hardest not to let the manipulation get the best of me, as the individual used every trick in the book to get what he wanted.

Bullying is not just a problem with "kids these days." We, as adults, have all learned different ways to get what we want, too.

It is up to us to resist the temptation to give in to these ways that aren't fair to others and to model for the children in our community the proper way to treat those around us.

If we don't, who will?

The great philosopher Ellen DeGeneres is known to sign off at the end of her daily show by saying, "Be kind to one another."

It is my hope and prayer — for the sake of those like Rebecca who feel as if there's no kindness in this world — that some start to take Ellen's words to heart.

Zak Lantz is the editor of The Spirit.

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