What Compels Cyberbullying Victims to Commit Suicide?
What is cyberbullying?
Cyberbullying is a pervasive problem among our nation’s youth. Unlike traditional bullying, where victims could at least escape their attackers, cyberbullying allows bullies to torment their victims psychologically and emotionally any time of day via social media websites, email or cell phone messages.
In many cases, cyberbullying victims have become so distraught over the 24-hour-a-day abuse that they have taken their own lives, opting to commit suicide rather than to face their abuser one more day.
Consequences of cyberbullying
The tragic consequences of cyberbullying have received national attention after the suicides of high school students Phoebe Prince and Megan Meier, among other young victims. In December 2010, the issue was brought to the forefront again with the suicide of Rutgers University freshman Tyler Clementi.
Tyler Clementi was not the victim of cyberbullying in a traditional sense. He was not called out online or attacked with anonymous insults. He was not threatened with physical violence or contacted late in the night with obscene messages. Nevertheless, what happened to Clementi was just as painful. His personal privacy was grossly violated and put on display for complete strangers.
According to most reports, the events leading up to Clementi’s suicide followed this scenario: Clementi, who was gay, requested that his roommate provide him with some time alone in their dorm room so that he could share a romantic encounter. The roommate, Dharun Ravi, agreed to the request but arranged his laptop in such a way that he could secretly record the encounter and stream it remotely through a chat program.
After the encounter, Clementi checked Ravi’s Twitter feed only to learn that Ravi had sent out a message explaining how he had recorded Clementi and the other individual without their knowledge. Clementi turned to a message board where he asked for help about what to do. Many people told him to report the invasion of privacy, and Clementi wrote that he would speak with the dormitory’s resident adviser.
Later, Clementi asked his roommate if he could use the room privately again. Ravi agreed, but Clementi then saw that he had posted a message on Twitter inviting others to contact him later that night for a free show on his webcam. Knowing that he was going to be recorded again, Clementi immediately contacted the resident advisor and shut down Ravi’s computer.
At this point, the digital record of events becomes somewhat muddled. The last thing that Clementi published online came the following morning when he wrote on Facebook, “Jumping off the gw bridge sorry.”
Clementi’s death again sparked a national debate on bullying and the proper punishment for such a gross invasion of privacy. Ravi currently faces bias and invasion of privacy charges, among others.
What compels cyberbullying victims to commit suicide?
Setting aside the tricky legal question of how cyberbullying and Internet-related harassment should be prosecuted, Tyler Clementi’s death raises another important question:
What compels cyberbullying and someone to commit suicide because of harassment online? Why is an invasion of privacy such an emotionally devastating attack?
What compels cyberbullying has no clear answer, and the reasons why each individual chooses to end his or her life are intensely personal, so it’s inappropriate to speculate what the victim were thinking before they made their decision. However, one can speculate that online abuse, whether in the form of invasion of privacy or nonstop harassment, is particularly damaging because the Web is an open forum.
As a culture, we invest a lot of time in our digital identities. We live our lives on Facebook and Twitter and other social media websites, and while we acknowledge that using these tools opens up our lives to the world, we accept the privacy ramifications because of the value of the technology. The key is choice. Individuals should be allowed to use their own discretion about what information they share online. When we take that choice away, we are violating a person’s rights on a very deep level.
In the case of Tyler Clementi, Ravi willfully violated Clementi’s right to privacy. Clementi’s right to share an encounter in the privacy of his own dorm room was negated by Ravi’s actions, and so Clementi lost control of a personal and important part of his identity. In essence, when you violate the privacy of others online and remove their ability to make an informed decision about their actions, you’re stealing from them. But you’re stealing something that can’t be replaced: their sense of pride, independence and freedom.
In the last decade, we have rapidly moved toward a culture where one’s Internet reality is recognized as the equivalent to actual reality. As technology becomes an increasingly pervasive influence in our society, the ability to actively choose how we want to share our private lives online will become even more crucial to our emotional and psychological well-being. Tragically, it takes incidences like the death of Tyler Clementi to make us think about these issues, like what compels cyberbullying, in a meaningful and substantive way.