Las Vegas Sun

October 23, 2017

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Spite and death in cyberspace

If William Golding were writing his classic dystopian novel “Lord of the Flies” today, it might well be titled “Lord of the Mousepad.”

For as we’ve learned from the suicide of Lakeland, Fla., preteen Rebecca Ann Sedwick, who succumbed to the relentless onslaught of online bullying, indifferent children armed with a keyboard and fueled by immaturity can inflict deadly cyber cruelty.

As many as 15 girls were at least aware of the abuse Sedwick endured beginning in November, when the 12-year-old was enrolled at Crystal Lake Middle School. First it was physical. Then the bullying went cyber.

A change of schools didn’t help. Neither did a brief effort at homeschooling. After all, the Internet knows no bounds. Neither does the pack mentality of fickle little girls on the hunt for vulnerable prey.

It was a steady stream of vitriol aimed at Sedwick over her cellphone and other online social media platforms. “You should die.” “Why don’t you go kill yourself.”

Finally, on Sept. 9, a beautiful young girl with a life so full of promise did just that. Sedwick, who had changed one of her screen names to “That Dead Girl,” climbed to the top of a tower at an abandoned cement plant and jumped.

It is perfectly understandable in the wake of such a heart-wrenching tragedy that Sedwick’s grief-stricken mother, Tricia Norman, would beat herself up over not fully seeing the signs of her daughter’s distress and doing something to prevent her death. Understandable, yes. But unfairly misplaced, too.

Norman had indeed monitored some of her daughter’s social media interactions. But she couldn’t capture them all. In the often opaque world of preteen and adolescent life, there are a multitude of social media platforms that most adults (read: parents) don’t know about.

And therein can be found the sad paradox of today’s iWorld. Children are invariably far more skilled and adept at navigating all manner of social media venues. But many of these same children lack the intellectual acuity or maturity to comprehend the repercussions of their abuse toward someone else.

The Internet is clearly one of the greatest egalitarian technological innovations in history. It has opened up vast oceans of information, streamlined communications, while bringing the world closer. And further apart, too.

We know that bullying is an intrinsic part of growing up. We know that cyberbullying is directed to at least 1 in 5 children. And we also know that it is vastly easier to engage in the character assassination of someone when you can in many cases anonymously hide behind a keyboard. Rebecca Sedwick was outnumbered. She never stood a chance.

It is easy to argue that all Sedwick had to do to end her online pillorying was to disconnect, turn off her cellphone, delete the offending messages, ignore the trolls vilifying her and calling for her death.

Alas, 12-year-olds don’t think that way. This is a tender age, when all children — especially young girls — yearn for social acceptance and crave a need to know how they are thought of, even if the result is less than flattering. Expecting Rebecca Sedwick to go technologically dark was no more realistic than expecting her to forsake her allegiance to the boy band One Direction. Some things simply aren’t done.

We probably all feel like Tricia Norman. If only we could hold Sedwick in our arms and, with the wisdom that life experience offers with age, assure her that this, too, shall pass. Things will get better. She will be happy someday. But that moment has been lost to the heavens.

Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd has hinted his office might pursue stalking charges against some of the 15 minor girls who engaged in the cyberassault on Sedwick or knew of the abuse and did nothing to stop it.

Perhaps Judd might be successful. But what the sheriff already must know is that the law in the area of cyberbullying is at best murky.

That’s not to say a modicum of justice can’t be found in the death of Sedwick.

Regardless of what does or doesn’t happen in court, the 15 girls who played any role in the cyber persecution of Rebecca Sedwick will have to live the rest of their lives with her death on their conscience.

And they will learn that memory can be the most unforgiving bully of them all.

Daniel Ruth writes for the Tampa Bay Times in Florida.

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