Originally published by Syracuse Post-Standard / Syracuse.com
By Anthony Rotolo, Contributing writer
It is difficult to imagine the pain and sense of hopelessness that led Tyler Clementi to end his life. As we search for an explanation for the loss of this talented Rutgers University student, some question whether social media — the chosen platform of Tyler’s bullies — may be to blame.
They ask: Have sites like Twitter and Facebook blurred the line between public and private for young people who have grown up using them? Have these social networks created a culture of detachment and anonymity that might explain how one student could hurt another so deeply without a second thought?
The public humiliation inflicted on Tyler Clementi by his fellow students left a permanent record online and a lasting impression on us all. Tyler was outed by his roommate on Twitter, and then video of his private sexual encounter was broadcast on the Internet. This tragic incident, and too many like it, have shown that social media can be used as a platform for bullying. But social media did not kill Tyler Clementi.
Ignorance killed Tyler Clementi.
It is dangerous to blame social media for Tyler’s death. It may be comforting, somehow, to tell ourselves that these technologies have created a warped sense of privacy or a culture of over sharing among young people. To accept this explanation is to ignore the real issue staring us in the face.
Tyler was tormented because he was gay. His right to privacy was violated by homophobic students who attacked him online until he saw no other escape. Social media were simply a means to an end for the students who bullied him. Sadly, the same cruelty has been inflicted on countless others, often without the help of the Internet.
Nonetheless, we are living in an age of instant, public broadcast. Today’s students are “digital natives” who rely on social media for information and socialization, but many do not understand the implications of sharing personal information online. Therefore, bullying often occurs through social networks. Some schools report as much as 75 percent of disciplinary cases result from online interactions between students.
Online bullying can be especially damaging because it knows no boundaries. Harassment and attacks follow a student home through Facebook where they mix with comments from friends and family. The victim is afraid to reject “friend” requests from a bully for fear of offline retaliation, and his friends are often silent or even participate in fear of becoming the next target.
Parents and teachers frequently ask how to teach students not to cyberbully, assuming that the reasons for bullying are somehow different when it happens online. This assumption leads to inaction, perhaps because we are intimidated by unfamiliar technology. But shying away from online bullying creates an environment devoid of adult supervision, where anything goes and intolerance is left unaddressed.
Although social media can amplify bullying, they can also help spread awareness of the issues involved. As more young people face attacks like the ones that led to Tyler Clementi’s death, some are using social media in an effort to save others from a similar fate.
Ellen DeGeneres released an anti-bullying video message on her Facebook page that has been shared by thousands of people on their own social networks. Organizations like The National Center for Bullying Prevention and Stop Bullying Now are using Twitter and Facebook to provide resources, and The Trevor Project is using YouTube to share video clips that show kids like Tyler that “it gets better.”
Bullying is an old problem with a new medium. It can be addressed and even stopped, but the real solution is not technical. We must continue to teach young people how to be tolerant of others, and to respect differences, especially when communication happens so broadly online. We cannot look away when we feel unfamiliar with the social networks they use, and we should not blame the medium when we see real cruelty displayed toward others.
Cyberbullying resources from Anthony Rotolo;
National Center for Bullying Prevention: www.pacer.org/bullying/index.asp.
Stop Bullying Now: https://www.stopbullying.gov
”It Gets Better” by The Trevor Project: www.youtube.com/itgetsbetterproject
Anthony Rotolo is an Assistant Professor of Practice at the Syracuse University School of Information Studies where he teaches courses on social media. Rotolo is also co-founder of Enormo.us, a creative agency that specializes in social media, animation and interactive content.