November 8, 2012 | 10:27 am
Posted by Noga Gur-Arieh
For the past few weeks my mind has been preoccupied. An event that occurred in my home town got me thinking on how mean can people be? And moreover- how mean can young people be? What makes a kid or a teenager, who didn't even get the chance to experience real life, own a heart of stone?
Two weeks ago, I got a phone call. On the other end of the line was the head of the municipal student council, which I am in touch with due to my work as a local reporter. "I just heard something and I wanted to know if it's true," she said. "I heard that a 16 year old girl from one of the high schools in town tried to commit suicide." She then told me that according to the story, being passed from mouth to ear, the girl got drunk one night about a year ago, and had a sexual encounter with two older kids. That night was filmed by one of them, and now he decided to share everything with his friends. The girl was then teased by her peers, and tried to end her life by swallowing pills. At the last minute, she was rushed to the hospital and was saved. The following day, what started as a rumor amongst friends, turned out to be truth and was covered by all newspapers.
I must admit when it came to cyber bullying, I was naïve enough to believe this was a phenomenon which is mostly fictional on such a destructive level. I was exposed to it mainly on American films and television series. A few weeks ago, I read the story of Amanda Todd, which was the sad approval of the worst outcome of cyber bullying. I wish this proof never existed, because when I saw it on the screen I could doubt its existence in real life. After all, television always takes everything out of proportion. Later I found out just how common this vicious act of teasing is in the United States. I read about more stories of such, with the worst kind of ending, and heard from my American friends about this phenomenon, which takes place mainly in high schools. Everyone who is a bit different, in any way, is doomed to a fate of bullying by his classmates. At that point, it seemed to me like an all-American phenomenon. It's not like I thought Israeli kids never take part or suffer from cyber bullying, but I realized the Israeli cyber bullying is on a much smaller scale.
The American approach towards high school is much different than the Israeli one. In the US, high school is a major part of one's life, and this four-year long experience can alter a person's life. In Israel, it is a lesser deal. For the Israeli students, high school is just another passing phase in life. It can have a positive tone for some, and a negative for others, but in no way it has any similarity to the American high school experience. Because of that, I believed cyber bullying, or any kind of bullying, is creating a destructive path mainly in the States. As it turns out, there are mean people everywhere, and have such a little clue of the power of their words. It is not an American phenomenon, it is a global phenomenon, which grows bigger and bigger as the World Wide Web develops. Nowadays, the "grownups" have very little control over their children’s online social lives, and many parents and teachers fail in tracking the online abuse before it is too late. Teenagers' and children's sense of sensitivity is very blunt. They feel like they can do whatever they want, and say anything that comes to mind. When they see someone or something different, they react, while being fully aware or their harsh words. We live by certain standards, and they know exactly when someone takes a wrong turn. Their mean words sting and burn and scar for life, and for some of their peers, this is too much to take. While there are young people who have the skin of an elephant, some are not capable of taking everything in. They sink and drown and feel too embarrassed and too scared to turn to an adult. As they keep taking punches, their peers continue their brutal attack, wearing out their "victim", until they win.
Only then, when it is too late to do anything, they realize their actions, and the school system and families step in. Talks, lectures, sometimes criminal charges- the system does anything it its power to bring justice, retroactively. I keep thinking how many lives could have been saved if mean words would be handled by the system as seriously as physical violence. Words are harsh, and when they are carved on a virtual wall for everyone to see, they are destructive. I probably would never be able to understand how people can be so mean. How can 16 year olds make their peer be willing to take her own life, when there is so much ahead of her? What is it about people that can make them show no solidarity or respect, and not fully realize their actions?
Words can kill, especially now, in the cyber age. It is so easy for a rumor to get out of hand, or an embarrassing video to spread throughout the world in a matter of minutes. There should be zero tolerance around children and teens for aiming mean words at someone else, and handling this should not be after an action that cannot be rewound has occurred. This phenomenon is spreading fast, leaving bodies behind. It is growing bigger and bigger and soon, it might become too big to handle. Now is the time to put an end to cyber bullying, which cannot be detected inside the schools. It is time for parents and teachers to be aware of the young people's after school online activity, and take more interest in the youngsters’ feelings and behavior outside of class. Now is the time for the educational system and parents, all around the world, to take another step forward in fighting cyber bullying. IT CAN BE STOPPED.
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