Cyberbullying, suicide, reactions, and moving forward

A recent entry on Jamie Tworkowski’s blog for To Write Love On Her Arms addresses the suicide of Alexis Pilkington, the role of Formspring as the forum for where the bullying leading to her suicide occured, and the surprising response of a boycott of the site as the reaction.

Jamie is spot-on in her reasoning why the boycott is a bad idea, and her post is the blogosphere’s equivalent of a Wayne Gretzky shot that blazes right past the goalie:

…I don’t believe that boycotting Formspring is any sort of solution. I don’t believe it will prevent suicide. The same problems exist on Facebook and MySpace and Twitter and countless other websites. And with that, it’s worth considering that hate, as well as pain, have been around much longer than the internet. If that’s true, then perhaps the problem is not the internet at all – perhaps the problem is people.

I believe there’s a bigger picture and better solutions to consider. […] [I]f you want to learn to fight for the lives and health of the people around you – my guess is that it won’t have much to do with the strangers on the internet. My guess is that it will happen in the context of real relationships and honest conversations.

This sentiment is echoed by commenters on the post (relevant portions of comments, with identification):

  1. I agree, boycotting Formspring won’t do much. People need to reach out to their community. (a texas girl)
  2. I don’t think Formspring is the problem, its people. Why can’t we all just get along? (Sydney)
  3. I was surprised that anyone would think boycotting Formspring would solve the problem. It’s clear that the problem was the people who sent hateful messages, not the site itself. (Kenna)
  4. I do agree that formspring should NOT be boycotted. It’s not going to help at all, it’s not going to stop suicide, it’s not going to bring Alexis back. (Brigette)

Not surprisingly, I also concur with what Jamie is saying here. Verbal bullying, harassment, and ostracism predate electronic communications media. Blaming Formspring for this is irresponsible and wrong. The responsibility for actions of an online service’s users ultimately lies with the users themselves. There is really only so much an online service can do in cases like this; Formspring includes the ability to block questions from anonymous users, requiring at least that the users register.

No one in Alexis’s position should feel like help is not available to them. We will never know for sure what Alexis was thinking before taking her own life. This is a great chance for teachers and faculty at schools across the country, or even around the world, to remind their students help is available and where they can get it. Nobody–particularly at that young of an age–should feel they are helpless.

Those who drove Alexis to suicide get my strongest contempt, which they deserve. They know who they are and they will have to live with the results of their cold, thoughtless, selfish, hateful, and (perhaps most importantly) deadly conduct for the rest of their lives. That is the real problem we should be attacking here: how can people be this insensitive toward someone? By the time one is of high school age, one is closer to adulthood than kindergarten. Yet bullying, particularly cyberbullying, shows no sign of letting up, and it appears most adults are still catching up on technological literacy when it comes to their children’s interactions over the Internet. But this is only part of the problem. What does it say about us as a society and our school system when so many teenagers in high school are patently devoid of scruples during their final four years prior to adulthood, to the point they would bully another student into suicide?