Sunday, June 12, 2016

Suicide Watch: Can You Walk Away from Cyberbullying?

Tovonna Holton selfie

The other day a young girl from Florida named Tovonna committed suicide after friends posted nude photos & video of her onto Snapchat—a popular mobile app for sharing media with friends. According to reports, her mother didn’t understand what Tovonna was upset about. It’s possible she was hysterical and not clear, because it turns out she had been filmed while showering. Three hours after talking to her mother, she shot herself with her mother’s pistol.

Tovonna’s death has been overshadowed this weekend by the horrific gay bar mass-shooting in Orlando, but while some people might want to focus on gun control, and others might want to blame her family, I want to focus on cyberbullying.

According to Drapeau & McIntosh, suicide is the 2nd leading cause of individuals aged 15–24. Homicide places third. Every few years, cyberbullying plays a part in these tragedies, leading many to cry, “Something must be done!”, which usually amounts to curtailing free speech in one way or other, or taking away gun rights. Then nothing gets done about it.

In the cultural libertarian crowd I follow on Twitter, it is popular to mock anti-cyberbully advocate demands because they usually demand policing the net, abolishing anonymity, etc. They want to fix one problem by curtailing civil liberties. The typical response is “LOL Cyberbullying can’t hurt you. Just turn your phone off.”.

Can you just walk away from cyberbullying?

Yes, you can walk away and put it out of your mind, but some people are better prepared to handle cyberbullying than others. Let’s explore why that is.

As an adult who regularly blogs about suicide, I have received threats, I have been told that nobody cares about me , and I’ve been told to kill myself. Angry trolls post their hateful comments, and I roll my eyes at them. I can do that because I don’t give their words power over me. I usually reply with something snarky and move on.

I have a grown up perspective. I see that some idiot on the internet wants me to kill myself because they disagree with me, and I laugh. Who are they to me? I have daughters, friends, and family that love me. I have readers who appreciate my writing. The trolls are often impotent gnats raging against a world they have no significance in. I just swat them away. If things get too heated on Twitter or Facebook, I know I can just throw my hands up in the air and say, “Enough! Time for a break!”, then walk away from the heat. I can choose to combat it again later, or just ignore it, as is usually the case. I don’t have to let their poison take up residence in my mind.

I can LOL and turn my phone off.

Unfortunately, teenagers in general lack the maturity to do all of the above. Adults know how to let hurtful comments pass over them like a hot blast of air during a heat wave. We know the toxic comments aren’t credible, but for teenagers, social networks are everything. In fact, as any parent of teenagers can attest, their friends are more real and commanding of their attention than school, family life, or anything else that might be happening around them. When a teenager’s privacy is violated and photos of them are leaked online, that overwhelming feeling of impotency coupled with humiliation is crushing to their developing self-esteem. Cyberbullying is very real to them. It’s a hot blast of air all around them as they stand in a furnace of unwanted attention.

For Tovonna, who was all of fifteen years old, finding out that friends had filmed her showering, put it up online, then mocked her was too much for her to bear. Betrayal, shame, humiliation, and a crushing sense of powerlessness is likely what she was feeling when she decided to end her pain.

What can be done about cyberbullying?

I suggest that we start at home. Don’t wait for intrusive feel good laws to get passed. Take charge of the situation now. Here are six tips that I have found to be very helpful when I learned cyberbullying was happening to my children:

  1. Keep calm. You can’t help your child if you freak out. They need to be able to rely on your strength.
  2. Cyberbullying may not cause physical harm, but it does cause emotional harm. Help your kid deal with their feelings. Teach them how to be strong. They’re going to be overwhelmed without your help.
  3. Your child needs your help believing that they can get through whatever difficult situation they find themselves in. When they are besieged online, their world feels like it has ended. You may need to lend a little bit of your faith that the sun will rise.
  4. Teach your children that hurtful comments can be ignored. Start early! You won’t do your child any favors by waiting for a crisis to tell them not to let the words sting. You may not care about your child’s schoolmates’ opinions, but your child certainly does.
  5. Keep your relationship healthy so that your child can feel comfortable confiding in you. This is not an easy task. You aren’t the only parent frustrated that your child confides in peers over you. Keep cultivating that relationship!
  6. Teach your child how to reach out for help if images of them have been leaked online. This is something that should involve the police and school officials immediately. There is time for safety lectures later. Act quickly! If the images are nude and have crossed state lines, it becomes a matter of child pornography. The FBI could become involved, too.

When we prepare ourselves mentally, we can LOL and walk away from cyberbullying. We decide whether the words and actions of others have power over us or not. This is a good skill to teach your children so that they don’t despair if they ever find themselves on the receiving end of cyberbullying. Sic the authorities on the culprits, follow my tips, and put all your efforts into comforting those developing minds.


I don't discuss cyberbullying much in my book, but you'll find many chapters on helping suicidal loved ones in it.