High-Profile Verdict Puts Much-Needed Spotlight on Anti-Gay Cyberbullying
Bullies have been around since ... well, Cain slew Abel. What’s changed is the exponential harm a bully can do today. The difference between 2012 and even 1992 is that with the stroke of a few letters on a keyboard and the "click" of mouse, a bully can electronically send Twitter the slur "fag" and put it on Facebook for all the world to snicker.
Many LGBT teens still face the threat of physical violence in the hallways of their school. But today, the fistful of sand in the eyes is more often than not done in cyberland reaching hundreds of people. In other words, bullying has always been around but now it can go viral.
"We’ve all read about or heard of young students committing suicide after repeated cyberbullying attacks from other students," Kevin Gerard Kilpatrick, a professor in the Department of Sociology at California State University San Marcos, told EDGE. "In my opinion, cyberbullying will outpace physical bullying soon because of the anonymity inherent in social media."
For some, like 14-year-old Rafael Morelos, the cyberbullying mixed with taunts at school prove to be more than they can bear. On Jan. 29, 2012, Morelos hanged himself after friends say he was subjected to bullying at Cashmere Middle School in Cashmere, Wash., where he had enrolled last fall. According to classmates, fellow students bullied Morelos because he was gay.
After his tragic death, one of his friends came forward to say they had witnessed Morelos being shoved and punched in the face during gym in Cashmere’s locker room. "He was tired of people saying that his little brothers would follow in his footsteps and be gay, too," another friend recalled.
In addition, friends say one bully even created a fake Facebook page so that he or she could taunt Morelos, who was openly gay, online. "Young students are particularly vulnerable to adverse reactions due to the fact that they are forming their self-image in the midst of cyberbullying," Kilpatrick observed. "When so much emphasis is placed on popularity, a student’s standing can be threatened by one well placed text, tweet, Facebook comment, or email blast."
According to www.kidshealth.org, a 2006 poll from the national organization Fight Crime: Invest in Kids found that one in three teens and one in six preteens have been the victims of cyberbullying. As more and more youths have access to computers and cell phones, the incidence of cyberbullying is likely to rise.
Ravi-Clementi Case Brings Up Host of Issues
In the best-known case of cybullying, Dharun Ravi was recently convicted on charges that could land him in jail for ten years, and even lead to his being deported to his native India, for contributing to the death by suicide of Tyler Clementi, his 18-year-old roommate at Rutgers University in New Jersey, where they had both just started school as freshmen.
Eighteen months ago, just days after he learned Ravi had twice tried or succeeded in using a computer webcam to spy on him as he spent intimate time with another man, Clementi jumped to his death from the George Washington Bridge. Ravi sent out Twitter and text messages encouraging others to watch the webcam video of Clementi.
The verdict is seen as precedent setting, one that makes the case that national hate-crimes laws have broadened, in an era when laws in general have not kept up with evolving technology. Cyberbullying -- once seen as an obscure act -- can now be used as evidence to convict suspects in hate-crimes cases, as was done here.
"Cyberbullying is definitely a problem and Tyler Clementi was a victim of it," psychiatrist and author Dr. Carole Lieberman told EDGE.
Lieberman praised the March 16 conviction of Ravi on all 15 charges he had faced. "It is clear that [Ravi] doesn’t have a clue about his own psyche, doesn’t care how he hurts others -- including having no real remorse for Tyler Clementi," she said. "He certainly deserved to be found guilty on all charges."
She even cites Ravi’s having a purple shirt and tie to court as a sign of his arrogance. Purple is a color that has become a color that someone would choose to wear if they wanted to show support for ending teen suicide, she explained.
"In my years as a psychiatric expert witness, I cannot remember a defendant daring to alienate the jury this way," Lieberman said. "Defendants are told to wear conservative colors, but Ravi seems to just want to look good for the media."
When the Bully Fears Being Gay
Like many others, Lieberman believes that bullying can be a case of self-hatred. "Ravi seems to be struggling with his own sexual identity issues," she said, "which is why his homophobia rose to the extent of videotaping his roommate and using social media to get others to validate his point of view."
Heather Carter, project manager for the Washington State Youth Suicide Prevention Program’s LGBT arm, OUTLoud, reminds us that the bully is a victim, too.
"We know that those that bully have reasons for why they do what they do. We have to look at the full picture," she told EDGE. "Research has shown that those who bully may be experiencing violence in their home, there may be social pressure to act a certain way, and/or there may be underlying prejudice that leads to the behavior. We need to understand the motivation so was can focus on changing the behavior."
Carter cites research that purports to show that there’s an increase in risk for suicide among those who bully also, not just amongst the targets of bullying.