Just like many of you, I sat transfixed for eight long minutes and watched Amanda Todd’s online cry for help. Five weeks after posting that video, the B.C. teenager was found dead, having committed suicide when she saw no end to her anguish.
The video shows a silent Amanda telling her painful story of cyber bullying via handwritten flash cards. One by one, she exposes them like festering scars, like the adolescent mistakes we wince at, but somehow managed to survive, for we were all once teenagers and undoubtedly made our own bad decisions. It ends with a devastatingly raw cry for help. The silence that screams: “I have nobody. I need someone.”
An entire country was shaken by the video (made even more poignant once we know how it all ends), and in frantic desperation we’re all trying to figure out how we can put a stop to a problem that seems to be much more prevalent today than it ever was in the past. It isn’t, of course. Social media has only made it appear more omnipresent.
In response to Amanda’s death, NDP MP Dany Morin requested that a national anti-bullying strategy be introduced, and a committee formed to discuss possible solutions. While, no doubt, well meaning, what is it that this committee is supposed to conclude? It wasn’t all that long ago that this province was reeling from 15-year-old Marjorie Raymond’s senseless suicide. Remember her? What’s changed since then? Absolutely nothing.
I’m not against searching for solutions, and I most certainly understand people’s need to do something –anything! - in reaction to this tragedy, but I am reticent to believe that legislation will take care of such a complex problem. While the government is there to offer solutions, it’s not the solution to everything.
How does one legislate compassion? What kind of laws would be required to make up for the lack of empathy in the kind of children, who taunt, terrorize and torment their classmates, and actually derive pleasure from it? What kind of bill do we introduce that could someone substitute for absent parents, overworked teachers, and under-supervised children who have made TVs and computers their de-facto babysitters?
The qualities required for a human being not to be a bully are instilled at an early age. It’s a parents’ job to try and raise an empathetic, well-adjusted child that will, not only have no desire to diminish someone else’s spirit in order to make themselves feel bigger, but will also have the confidence and self-esteem to stand up and fight for those who are being bullied. Without necessarily absolving government and educational institutions, it always starts at home.
Kids are mean. They always have been. This is nothing new. Cyber bullying has, of course, added a whole new dimension, since it allows bullies (already a cowardly bunch) to terrorize from the safety and anonymity of cyberspace. It’s the reason why, even after Amanda’s death, when countless Facebook pages were set up in her memory, the attacks continued. Bullies so crude and insensitive, that they thought nothing of plaguing a memorial page with abusive photos and comments, including comments like “I hope they have bleach in hell”. It takes a special kind of desensitized callousness to behave this way.
Kids are mean. They always have been. This is nothing new. Cyber bullying has, of course, added a whole new dimension, since it allows bullies (already a cowardly bunch) to terrorize from the safety and anonymity of cyberspace.
Permissive parenting, a lack of boundaries and supervision, a reaction to overly strict parenting, a desire for power or attention (when you feel like you don’t have respect or acknowledgment, you seek to get it through fear), sociopathic tendencies, behavioural problems… All these are reasons for bullying. And let’s not forget that in Amanda’s case, female objectification and victimization were also at play. The same shame that prevents a rape victim or an incest survivor from exposing their attacker was the secret shame that made this young girl’s life a living hell.
But well-meaning legislation can’t really tackle the root of these problems and change behaviours. Standing up for people changes things. Teaching your children to voice out loud that “it’s not ok” to bully, to terrorize, to make snide remarks about someone changes things. Vilifying the attacker, and not the victim, changes things…
Legislation is simply a band aid solution to a complex problem, and one that can easily backfire, if not utilized properly, for who’s to say what the fine line is between overly aggressive and harassing conduct online and political and other forms of speech? Left to interpretation, it’s a slippery slope.
I’m not saying don’t take on bullying! I’m saying take it on, at a grassroots level, where it matters, where it will make a difference. Parents talk to your kids, explain to them how to be compassionate human beings, and how to stand up to bullying – for themselves and for others. Teachers make it clear that there’s an open-door policy that ensures that children victimized by bullying have somewhere to go and someone to speak to.
Ultimately, in this sometimes cold, callous, and calculating world, be brave enough to be kind and to have each others' backs. Common decency cannot be legislated; it can only be taught by example.