When I was 15, a boy in my sophomore class of 83 students shot himself because of bullying. Apparently, on the day he took his life, a few students saw him touching himself a little too freely. Whispers turned into giggles, and by the end of the day he stormed out of the school, broke into his dad's gun cabinet and ended his short life.
He and I were not best buddies, but with only 83 kids in our class, I knew him and I sat next to him in a number of classes. It broke my heart when I heard that he was gone, and I have thought about him often over the past 20 years. I have always wished that someone could have explained to him on that fateful day that a bad day in high school does not equate to bad days for the rest of your life. In fact, the high school years in and of themselves are pretty insignificant in the overall scheme of your life.
I think about that every time I hear of a kid getting torn down by his peers in high school, college or increasingly in elementary school. I wish someone could tell these kids that these moments won't stay with them forever. But in light of today's techno-savvy bullying techniques, I'm afraid that advice is no longer valid.
Take Tyler Clementi. He's the Rutgers student who committed suicide this week after a video of him having a sexual encounter with another man was circulated by his roommate on the web. Tyler's roommate didn't just spy on him and tease him for being gay (that would have been too boring). Rather, using his webcam, the roommate created a permanent record of Tyler's private life and broadcast it via the Internet to the world. He also used Twitter to invite people to watch.
I won't pretend to know what prompted Tyler to take his life, but it's possible that he thought the Internet record of his affairs could affect his future. This wasn't just whispers and giggles shared among students at Rutgers; this was a video broadcast on the Internet that could be accessed by family members, journalists, future employers, future life partners — you name it. No doubt, technology has changed the nature and the permanency of bullying.
So what can we as a community do to stop bullying and to help kids who are being bullied? Ironically, on the day that Tyler Clementi killed himself, Rutgers University launched a campaign targeting bullying, even focusing on today's high-tech bullying tactics like nasty text messages, Facebook stalking, and the unauthorized posting of pictures and videos.
Sadly, this campaign won't do anything to help Tyler, but maybe his story, combined with future campaigns against cyberbullying, will help other students. Maybe tougher laws will protect other kids from being bullied, and convince potential bullies that the consequences of that nasty Facebook post or text message will affect his life as well as his intended target.
What do you think? What is the best way to protect kids from bullies in the Internet generation?