Words Are Deadly Weapons 

On June 14, 2017, 12-year-old Mallory Grossman took her own life. She was a beautiful young girl, a gymnast and cheerleader, with a loving family. She was also bullied, both in person and through social media. When her tormenters suggested she kill herself, she did. Her parents are suing the school district.

According to attorney Bruce Nagel, who is bringing the lawsuit, some of the messages Mallory received were "vile and malicious." She was apparently told for months that she had no friends, was a loser, and finally told, "Why don't you kill yourself?"[i] Finally, she did. 

What makes Mallory's case different from the type of bullying children suffered 30 years ago? Plenty. One of the primary distinctions is the ease with which cyber bullies can fly under the radar, while posting their toxic text right under the noses of parents and teachers.

The New “Face” of Modern Bullying

Today's bullies are not necessarily more vicious, they are viral. Whether on Facebook, Instagram, or the scores of other social media platforms, cyber bullies have 24/7 access to their victims—and to the rest of the world. With a click or a swipe they can upload photos, videos, and personal details about victims with the goal of humiliating and degrading their targets. And bullies can engage in this despicable behavior from the comfort of their own homes, which can create psychological distance from the consequences of their actions, and a decreased sense of accountability.

A cyber bully's audience is also markedly different than in years past. Adults who view bullying as a cruel form of “character building” should consider the difference in significance and scope of modern bullying. Schoolyard bullies taunt victims in front of peers on the playground. Cyber bullies taunt victims on the World Wide Web. 

And unlike a playground sucker punch that sends a victim home with a black eye, online aggression can be deadly. Every year we see teen suicides caused by cyber bullying behavior. Consequently, families, school authorities, and community members are increasingly focused on spotting potential victims before it is too late. Yet due to the nature of cyber bullying, they can be challenging to identify.

Anyone Can be a Victim: The Internet as the Great Equalizer

Cyber bullying is an invisible epidemic—because it happens online. Parents miss it, peers miss it, and teachers miss it. We don't hear it, because teens would rather text than talk. We don't see it, because teens are intensely protective of their phones and devices.

Some miss cyber bullying because they hold outdated victim stereotypes. Online, cyberbullying victims include successful, well-adjusted adolescents that do not fit a “victim” stereotype. Yet online dynamics are very different than in person. On the playground, bullies punch down—picking on the weak, or the small. But online, unencumbered by physical limitations, bullies are empowered to expand their range of targets. Everyone is vulnerable.

Cyber Bullying Leaves Digital Footprints

Old-school bullying often leaves a trail of circumstantial evidence. There may be missing belongings, including valuables such as electronics and jewelry—because contemporary bullies steal more than lunch money. Some children even make excuses as to what happened to their belongings, to avoid disclosing their predicament. In addition to missing valuables, be on the lookout for poorly explained cuts and bruises, psychosomatic complaints, and changes in routine—sometimes including walking home a different way, even when it is much longer.

Cyber bullying victims leave a trail of evidence that is not physical, but emotional. Cyber bullies do not steal lunch money, they steal pride, confidence, and self-respect. Accordingly, victims exhibit emotional and behavioral signs that include changes in communication patterns, health complaints, or a depressed or anxious demeanor. Parents are in an excellent position to notice such changes, because they are familiar with baseline behavior exhibited by their child, and can compare changes in mood, affect, appetite, and physical complaints. 

Cyber Bullies Leave Witnesses

Swearer and Hymel in “Understanding the Psychology of Bullying” (2015) describe bullying as not merely a relationship between a bully and the victim, but a group event occurring within a social context where multiple factors operate to “promote, maintain, or suppress such behavior.”[ii] As with any group event, there are always witnesses. Plenty of them in an online context.

Educational and community campaigns urge witnesses to report cyber bullying behavior sooner rather than later, and to never assume someone else has done the reporting. Your call could save a life.

Search and Rescue: The Role of Family and Community in Detecting Victims

What distinguishes Mallory Grossman's case from others is the fact that the parents knew about the bullying and took active steps to intervene. Many parents are unaware that their children are being harassed online, since many teens keep their virtual lives private. 

Yet even when parents and teachers are unaware of cyber bullying behavior, there are proactive steps they can take to address the growing epidemic. One of those steps is creating a supportive atmosphere designed to dissuade bullies, and empower victims and witnesses to report harassing conduct. To further this goal, schools can provide training about the effects of bullying, model the appropriate response, and enforce rules and policies that address bullying.[iii]

An atmosphere of increased awareness will assist communities in their quest to detect cyber bullies and rescue their victims before another life is lost.

About the author:

Wendy Patrick, JD, PhD, is a career prosecutor, author, and behavioral expert. She is the author of Red Flags: How to Spot Frenemies, Underminers, and Ruthless People (St. Martin´s Press), and co-author of the revised version of the New York Times bestseller Reading People (Random House). 

She lectures around the world on sexual assault prevention, the psychology of attraction, and reading red flags. She also teaches workplace violence and all aspects of threat assessment, and is an Association of Threat Assessment Professionals Certified Threat Manager. The opinions expressed in this column are her own. 

Find her at wendypatrickphd.com or @WendyPatrickPhD.

References

[i] http://abcnews.go.com/US/wireStory/family-bullied-girl-sue-school-districtsuicide-48970425

[ii] Susan M. Swearer and Shelley Hymel, “Understanding the Psychology of Bullying: Moving Toward a Social-Ecological Diathesis-Stress Model,” American Psychologist 70, no. 4 (2015): 344–353.

[iii] For more information see https://www.stopbullying.gov/prevention/training-center/hrsa_guide_school-administrators_508.pdf

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