A few days ago I read a piece of news (http://www.cnn.com/2016/12/01/health/teen-suicide-cyberbullying-trnd/index.html) that broke my heart. Brandy Vela, an 18 year old high school student shot herself to death. She did it in front of her family, who were trying to plead with her to not pull the trigger of the gun she was holding.
A mother of two daughters, like me, can only transiently identify with the enormity of the pain that the family of Brandy suffered; only for a moment does the mind allow itself to go to that horrific place of utter pain, and then it retreats, looks away, in horror. It is the ultimate disaster to befall a parent, and a sibling, the death of a young, 18 year-old girl with a radiant smile and beautiful blue eyes. And if there is a death worse than other deaths, then this is the one: an unnecessary, tragic, terrible loss of a young life just because of the thoughtless, careless, sadistic cruelty of her peers.
It is unthinkable that some of our young adolescents are capable of such cruelty. Yet it has become a fact of life, a part of growing up, now more publicly humiliating, more intrusive and pervasive than ever, as it pervades the home of the person it targets, at all times, in front of a virtual audience of unknown size. There is no safe place to retreat to, a room to hide in. This is not better than it used to be one or two generations ago, this is no progress. This is much, much worse. Yet our ways of countering these vicious attacks have not been sufficiently helpful, not to the victims and not to the perpetrators. The young people initiating such torture and inflicting this kind of extreme social pain and isolation on peers are not always those who would appear to be the kind of person who would do such things. They don’t always come from troubled families, or have themselves suffered abuse, or witnessed abuse. Our schools seem more aware of these types of problems these days, in comparison to years ago. There are now programs and school gatherings where the topic of bullying is discussed; yet many young people admit that they are untouched by these lectures, and that bullying proceeds right after the end of such formal activities.
Something must happen to change this reality. Something must happen to prevent the pointless, tragic, unfathomable loss of a young life. The promise of all that Brandy Vela could have become, all she wanted to see, do, experience, all extinguished in a moment. A moment that was the culmination of a terrible, irreversible decision, that her suffering was more than she could endure, a conviction, born out of the continuous contemptuous, offensive, belligerent, tearing down by anonymous attackers.
What can we do to change the culture of young people these days? How can civility and compassion counter the easy, malicious toying with people’s lives, using the technology of social media?
Who is going to come up with the solution? We bemoan the occasional terrible death of yet another adolescent or young adult who take their own life, because they cannot take it anymore. Yet so little is done to address the underlying problems that make this phenomenon a fact of life for so many of our children.
Can we utilize experts on cyber-terrorism to prevent such attacks from going unpunished? Should there be stricter laws that address attacks of this kind, much as there are laws to address other types of attacks? Is there enough research conducted about effective ways to address this problem, since the traditional ways don’t necessarily provide sufficient prevention? Why are all of these questions not a much more present part of the public discourse on TV and in the highest levels of the public domain?
All we know is that many young people are robbed of joy during the years they spend in school or at University, and some are even robbed of their lives. This is a tragedy that has to find a louder echo with parents and researchers in academia, teachers’ and students’ organizations; it has to create real and meaningful, evidence-based and tested changes in the ways things are done, in schools and classrooms, and on the playground and in the cafeterias. An echo that will begin to make a change.