Cyberbullying or the act of teasing, harassing and making fun of one or more children through an electronic medium, has become a talked about issue. There are studies, legislation, Lifetime movies and books that discuss the issue and yet it is hard to determine why kids partake in it.
“Unlike regular bullying, cyberbullying turns the child into a piece of paper so it becomes much easier for people to go overboard,” Yoko Nomura, an associate professor of psychology at Queens College, said. “The people who get bullied become almost non-human beings”
Last year, approximately 9 percent of high school age girls in New York City attempted suicide but the age when children turn to ending their lives is becoming younger.
On May 23, Gabrielle Molina, a Queens Village resident who attended IS 109, ended her life. The 12-year-old reportedly was found by her sister, hanging by a belt from her ceiling fan.
Police suspect cyberbullying was a major contributing factor in the pre-teen’s untimely death as it has been reported that Molina mentioned being picked on in her suicide note. She also apologized to her family for what she did.
Friends of Molina, who barely stood 5 feet tall, said that the seventh-grader had a history of cutting herself and was often teased because of it. After breaking up with her boyfriend, the teasing online became worse as students called her crude names. When she couldn’t take it any longer, she decided to end her life.
But how does someone, especially someone so young, get into a mindset in which they see death as the only option?
“The feelings of a child who is regularly bullied have a lot to do with stress hormones being released in the brain,” Nomura said. “This release is only supposed to happen in bursts. For example, if you were to be face to face with a tiger, your brain would release the hormones, and your muscles would become stronger and your pupils would be able to see more clearly, so you can determine if you are going to fight the tiger and kill it or run away from the tiger. Now, imagine every day waking up and having to face the tiger that you fought or ran from the day before. You would be exhausted.”
A famous study was done to test resilience in traumatic situations in which lab rats were placed into a tank of water, too deep for each animal to stand in. This forced the rats to swim. While some took longer than others, eventually the rats gave up and stopped swimming.
“Human beings are very delicate and complicated machinery,” Nomura said. “If something is introduced to the brain as something important, your whole entire body is going to focus on that one thing, like with the mice in the water. But eventually, when they are not able to handle these things any more, they are going to give up.”
In an effort to prevent a child from entering a fragile and depressed state of mind like Molina, there have been a number of initiatives on both the legislative and education levels.
“We did a lot of work on this last year in the Senate,” state Sen. Jeff Klein (D-Bronx) said. “We put together the first ever cyberbullying census, where we asked 10,000 young people across the state about their experiences with cyberbullying, and more than 60 percent of the students we interviewed reported that they or someone they knew had experienced cyberbullying.”
Klein, who is looking to make cyberbullying into a criminal offense, also reported that about 70 percent of the students polled said they thought it should be a crime.
“Right now, it is a crime to stalk someone or to harass someone, and I don’t think cyberbullying is any different,” he said. “We’re not looking to put kids in jail, but if young people know that this is going to be punished as a crime, they won’t do it. We’re putting way too much pressure on teachers to deal with this issue.”
The bill Klein proposed last year was not voted into law but the senator said he is still hopeful.
Councilman Danny Dromm (D-Jackson Heights) was reluctant to agree that turning cyberbullying into a criminal offense is the way to go.
“My initial reaction is that we’ve seen too much criminalization of our youth, particularly because they haven’t been told by our system that this is wrong,” the former teacher said. “But I do think it’s becoming a bigger and bigger problem, and it’s something that we’ve tried to combat in the Council and the [Department of Education] is even recognizing it as a serious issue now.”
Elissa Brown, PhD., the executive director of Child Help Partnership and a professor at St. John’s University, spoke about teaching people who know a bullied child how to deal with these situations.
“What seems to be working is the bystander intervention,” she said. “I think there needs to be some sort of parallel training for adults and children that will teach them to step in on the intervention and say that this is hurtful.”
“Parents need to start younger and let them know that this is not allowed and if it does happen, that this is what we should do,” Nomura said. “Something like stop, drop and roll. You know if you are on fire, what to do because of that. Parents need a procedure set in place at a young age and students will be more likely to talk about it. When a tragedy like this happens, it is awful, but to try and prevent it, parents should take this as an opportunity.”
There are also online resources as well. Stopcyberbullying.org is a website dedicated to informing children and adults on the effects of internet bullying. “Children really do understand much more than we give them credit for,” Nomura said. “I really do believe that people are good at heart and that they do not want to hurt people. There is a way to reach them, at any age. It has become more difficult to approach the issue but a support system is most important.”