Cyberbullying, gay bashing, and parental to-dos

There are certain things that I cannot wrap my mind around, no matter how hard I try, and believe me, I do try. I struggle mightily to see all sides of an issue, but sometimes, it turns out there is only one side: the right one. When children are killing themselves, something has gone terribly, horribly wrong and, being the ever helpful person I am, I’m going to say that that “something” is technology. And, to a certain extent, a lack of parental involvement in this digital generation. Stay with me, class, while I explain.

I lived through adolescence, and I remember the terror of being picked on and made the butt of jokes. Many – if not most – kids are cruel when in a pack (ala compulsory schooling), and the kids in my high school were no different. I saw the issue again as I raised my own children, some of whom were bullied in middle or high school. And now, as a student teacher in a high school, I see this water torture of life up close and personal once again as students shun, ostracize or joke about various classmates. As they say, some things never change. Unless, of course, you add some social networks and iPhones and web-cams so the bullying and terrorizing can be all the more horrific.

The recent suicides of Seth Walsh, 13, Asher Brown, 13, Billy Lucas, 15 and Tyler Clementi, 18, are all attributed to gay-bashing. Their tormenters believed the young men were gay and used that as a reason to terrorize them in the hallways, locker rooms and cafeterias of their schools. In the case of Clementi, the terrorizing was spread to the Internet, when his stupid (can I call a spade a spade? roommate webcammed Clementi making out with a man in his Rutgers dorm room and (surprise!) streamed it live. Two days later, Clementi jumped to his death off a bridge over the Hudson River.

What kind of horrible person web cams his roommate’s sexual encounter and streams it online? The kind of young man who no doubt teased guys like Walsh, Brown and Lucas in hallways and cafeterias in middle and high school. The kind of young man who was never stopped in a school yard by a teacher or principal when he or she called someone “fag” or “homo.” The kind of young man who didn’t hear enough lectures at home about respect for ALL human beings. And, perhaps most tellingly, the kind of young man who is a product of the digital generation that sees nothing as private and lives for their next Face Book status update. The kind of young man brought up in a culture of YouTube, which is just as likely to have “lets make fun of her” clips streamed as it is to have cute videos of babies and kittens. The kind of young man who has been so surrounded by technology that he’s lost the ability to think, “Would I want someone to do this to me?” in regard to fellow human beings.

Remember Phoebe Prince? She wasn’t tormented for being gay, but she was tormented through technology. Or Alexis Pilkington? Tormented to death with technology. The latest rash of teen suicides are attributed to the terrorizing of young gay men – treating them as something “less than” their tormenters – but this lack of respect for other humans crosses sexual, racial and religious boundaries. It is everywhere, all the time, as close as the next iPhone. And it is time parents did something about it.

So here’s your free parenting advice for the day: Turn off the darn TV – especially the one in the back seat of your car that you keep on to keep your kids quiet. Go to your computer and pull up the news about these recent deaths and have a come to Jesus meeting about what is happening in your child’s school. Have your child login to his/her social network sites and read what is being posted there. Then ask for their cell phone and read their text messages – incoming and outgoing. Figure out if you’ve got a little cyberbully in your house or if your child is being bullied by others. Do not think your child will tell you if he or she is being bullied – that rarely happens. And if he or she is being bullied, force the school to deal with it or go to the school board.

On the other hand, don’t think your child necessarily knows that he or she should not send that nasty text message about the oddball kid at school. They have to be taught how to be kind and loving to each other, they have to be asked “Would you like it …” questions to develop their sense of empathy. Discuss why it is wrong to say, “That’s so gay” or “You’re such a loser.”

In otherwords, do not assume children can raise themselves. They have parents for a reason. Be the grown up in your house – take responsibility for what your children do and look into what might be happening to them. And, for heaven’s sake, if your child is gay (or you suspect they are), keep loving them. They have a hard row to hoe in high school and they need you to help them make it. If you think you’d have issues with having a gay child, get yourself some help through a GLBT family group so your child can have the support he or she needs. Finally, teach respect for ever human being in everything you do and say.

That, ladies and gentlemen, is our job as parents: To be good examples, to know what is happening in our kids’ lives and to make sure they are behaving as caring, decent human beings – iPhones and webcams or no. Phoebe Prince, Seth Walsh, Asher Brown, Alexis Pilkington, Billy Lucas, and Tyler Clementi were human beings deserving of the same respect you and your children deserve. Make sure your kids know – and act – on that information.

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