Who could forget the horrible story of Phoebe Prince, the 15-year-old Irish immigrant who committed suicide after relentless bullying by nine school mates. But this wasn’t your old-fashioned schoolyard bullying. Phoebe apparently faced an onslaught of bullying via texts, Facebook messages, and in person at the school. Even after her death, the harassing girls left disparaging messages on a Facebook page created in her memory.
There is little mystery as to who those girls were; you met them in your own high school. They were the pretty girls who played sports, were in cheerleading, and used their good looks to date all the name-brand jocks. But having seen plenty of bullying in my own and my children’s high schools, I don’t recall such an extreme reaction as suicide. Teen agers are prone to suicidal ideation, but they rarely act on it. So what is it about cyber bullying that makes it so deadly?
In the latest issue of the Journal of Adolescent Health NIH investigators found a high likelihood of depression in victims of cyber bullying, higher than among the perpetrators (no surprise there) and higher than in adolescents that have not experienced any harassment. But what was is a bit surprising was the finding that cyber bullying caused significantly higher rates of depression than good old fashioned bullying. So what could the explanation be?
Unfortunately, the study was not designed to answer this question. But until a study to investigate this question is conducted, let me share a couple of thoughts. The anonymity of electronic messages tends to give the harasser the license to exceed all boundaries. I recently read an innocuous on-line article on the effect of climate change on the migration of European birds. Hardly a stimulating subject, until I read the readers’ comments; they were astounding in their vehement venom and vitriol.
On the other side of the equation, unlike traditional bullying which usually involves a face-to-face confrontation, cyber victims may not see or identify their harasser; as such, cyber victims may be more likely to feel isolated, dehumanized or helpless at the time of the attack. And the feeling of helplessness is a prime cause of depression.
The sense of isolation is not limited to depressed adolescents or to adolescents in general. “Social” networks are rapidly displacing face-to-face socialization. One may have hundreds of virtual Tweeter “followers” and Facebook “friends”, but in reality have few or no real-life friends. We recently went out for breakfast at a decidedly Yuppie (how 20th century) café. At the next table sat an attractive young couple; the epitome of the “beautiful people”. Both in their 30’s, obviously financially successful, dressed in casual chic, both looking like the world is theirs for the taking – and both pitifully isolated. She was texting on two phones, barely lifting her eyes. He was taking a stream of calls on his cell phone.
Or take this; there is a course offered at Yale teaching, I am not making this up, Verbal communication! Students have lost their capacity to communicate with each other meaningfully, in full sentences, and without the isolating protection of electronic gizmos.
How can anybody form support systems in such an arid social milieu? It can drive one to despair. And to suicide.