Nothing innocuous about cyber bullying

Never forget the fragility of adolescence.

These words are written on the tombstone of Ryan Patrick Halligan, a victim of bullying and cyber bullying who, at age 13 took his own life.

Ryan’s Story, a heart-wrenching website maintained by parents John and Kelly, paints a picture of a kind, loving boy who struggled academically in school. This perceived weakness made him a target of bullying from Grade 5 on. The problem, however, grew exponentially in 2003 as Ryan was spending more time online.

After his death, John and Kelly discovered through Ryan’s instant messaging account how he had been the victim of vicious unfounded rumour and cruel manipulation. And because it was done through the Internet, there was no way of telling how many people had been privy to the torment Ryan endured.

“I believe my son would have survived these incidents of bullying and humiliation if they took place before  computers and the Internet,” write John and Kelly. “I believe there are few of us that would have had the resiliency and stamina to sustain such a nuclear-level attack on our feelings and reputation as a young teen in the midst of rapid physical and emotional changes and raging hormones.”

Last Wednesday was Pink Shirt Day, where students and teachers donned pink shirts in a united front against bullying. During a visit that morning with Sicamous council, Eagle River Secondary principal Scott Anderson shared some of the challenges he and staff face with cyber bullying. He explained how rapidly a negative comment made online escalates to create a negative climate in the school. Being proactive with educational programs on bullying and intimidation is one way in which the school tries to address the problem. With cyber bullying, however, the problem is not restricted to the schoolyard.

For we reporters, cyber bullying has become a reality of the job. Through comment boards and social networking websites like Facebook, we are regularly thrown everything from constructive criticisms (usually welcomed), to anonymous sniping, to harassment in the form of personal threats and defamatory libel (remember Facebook users, when you post it, it’s published and often accessible by more than you know). Typically, the best course of action for reporters, students or anyone dealing with a cyber bully, is to just ignore them. However, if you feel threatened or are concerned things will escalate, be sure to copy what’s been written and bring it to the attention of your boss, parents, school principal and/ or the authorities. Do not suffer in silence – deal with the matter quickly before it gets out of hand.

For parents, it is critical that cyber bullying be taken seriously, and not viewed as a mere techno-twist on an archaic right of passage. It is important to be firm, to set rules for your child’s online and cellphone activity, to know the related dangers and, as always, be supportive.

Today, John Halligan visits schools across the U.S. and Canada, sharing Ryan’s story and the invaluable lessons he and his family learned in the worst way imaginable. Lesson number one, never underestimate the effect of bullying, be it in person or online.

– Lachlan Labere is a reporter for the Eagle Valley News