Last Monday, a 12-year-old girl named Rebecca Ann Sedwick climbed to the top of an abandoned cement plant near her family home in Lakeland, Fla., and jumped to her death. According to her mother, Rebecca was the victim of ruthless cyberbullying and stalking at the hands—or rather, touchscreens—of 15 girls. They taunted her on a number of social media sites, even after she switched schools. Like other bullying victims who took their own lives in the Internet age, Rebecca was encouraged to commit suicide online: “You should die,” and, “Why don’t you go kill yourself?” were among the litany of messages she received from her tormentors. This past year, her mother enlisted the help of the police and began monitoring her daughter’s activity online, but Rebecca—a digital native—evaded her surveillance. She did this by using anonymous “question sites” such as Ask.fm, a site where bullying activity has allegedly contributed to nine teen suicides. The bullies found her there, and carried on. Rebecca did not.
Almost five months before her death, the state of Florida signed an anti-bullying bill into law making it easier to charge bullies who inflict harm online. Nova Scotia’s Justice Minister Ross Landry took similar steps after the suicide of 17-year-old Rehtaeh Parsons, with August’s Cyber Safety Act—legislation that allows victims of cyberbullying to sue their bullies, or, if the accused are minors, to sue their parents instead. These laws are well-meaning but deeply flawed. They don’t prevent cyberbullying and they won’t—not only because anti-bullying legislation is, by necessity, extremely vague, but because the major catalyst of cyberbullying is the one thing we will never legislate against. It’s also the thing we cherish most about the Internet: its anonymity.
The wonders of the social web—the ability to browse pornography undetected, assume another identity in a chat room, stalk your ex-boyfriend’s Facebook page 300 times a day without his ever knowing it—would be impossible without the gift of digital disguise. But so, too, might cyberbullying.
In real life (IRL as they say online), in Canada, the majority of homophobes are closeted, the majority of racists do not accost minorities in the streets, and most teenage girls do not stalk and abuse their peers with untempered evil glee. But the anonymity integral to social media’s survival—the power to “creep” him or “troll” her—allows us to treat each other the way we have been treating celebrities forever: with brutal honesty and self-indulgent cruelty. The cyberanonymity available to Rebecca Ann Sedwick and her peers gave them the power to treat each other like strangers in the tabloids. On social media, all the world’s a star. But all the world’s a nobody, too—a dangerous combination.
Before the availability of instant anonymity, a teenage girl might wonder what other people at school thought about her, and occasionally she’d find out by way of a catty friend or some ugly scrawl on her locker. But today, on an anonymous question site, she can find out in precise, scathing detail (“Do you think Insert Your Name Here is pretty?” is a common question, with predictably poisonous results). Why, a logical person might ask, wouldn’t she avoid uncovering the dirt dished about her at all costs, the way some actors never read reviews? Because for the average teenage girl the sheer possibility of getting an answer, no matter how painful the potential result, is too tempting to ignore. (I know that I couldn’t ignore it. Think of yourself at age 15, or 12: could you?) A captive audience is one of the two indispensable things any cowardly sadist needs. And there is no more captive audience than the one who runs into its own cage.
The second thing bullies need is an iron-proof disguise. Anonymous sites raise the level of weaponry available in this brand of emotional warfare, so that one person can pose as many different people, creating the illusion that your whole world hates you when, in fact, it may just be Cathy from third period. Welcome to the 21st century, in which the average preteen with an Internet connection must navigate her social stratum like Jennifer Aniston post-breakup.
Sites like Ask.fm and Formspring have come under pressure to combat bullying by beefing up identity tracking as Facebook did. According to Business Insider, “Facebook has made efforts to ensure that a high percentage of its accounts belong to real people—and it deletes the accounts of fake users. It also has privacy controls. You can lock down your account completely, if need be, shutting out the world. You can’t do any of that on Ask.fm.”
But if you wanted to, you could do something even more proactive than “locking down” your Ask.fm profile. You could turn off your computer.
Maybe the captive audience of teenage-girldom could shed its self-imposed chains, break the spell, and learn the simplest lesson: Jaws is only a scary movie if people go in the water. Otherwise, it’s just a day at the beach.
The Internet is mostly a source for good in this world. So is anonymity. Detach the public persona from the person and he is free to come out to his friends in a chat room or start a political revolution in an oppressed country. But when anonymity is a source of unending misery for those hanging on by a comment thread, perhaps our anti-bullying work shouldn’t be about the courage to speak out, but the will to sign off.
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