Amanda Todd’s heart-wrenching video of how she was bullied and stalked leaves indelible questions and even fears for parents: “How can kids be so cruel? Could this happen to my child or a teen in my community? How could I protect them?”
“I was shocked at how it hurt me,” said Lynne Glardon, a Michigan mother of four, after watching Amanda’s video. “Her aloneness screams at me. She felt like she didn’t belong anywhere.”
After posting the video online September 7, Todd killed herself October 10 in her home in Port Coquitlam, British Columbia. She was just a month shy of her 16th birthday.
A few years earlier, at the tender age of 12, Amanda made a mistake online that would be a pivotal point for years of stalking, harassment, and bullying. Having what she thought was fun with friends on the Internet, she flashed her chest to a person who reassured her with flattery on the other side of a webcam.
This stalker captured the video and image and soon began to blackmail her. He wanted her to perform for him, and if she refused he threatened to share her indiscretion with anyone she knew. She wouldn’t bow to the pressure, and he attacked her as promised, sending her video to teachers, friends, and family online.
“People would start bullying Amanda and calling her ‘porn star’ and other names. It increased her anxiety and she couldn’t go to class,” Amanda’s mother Carol Todd told The Vancouver Sun in hopes of warning other parents.
When Amanda moved to other schools the stalker tracked down her new classmates on social networks and shared the photos and video again. Many students took the bait, and Amanda was bullied week after week. A short-lived and troubled relationship with a boy at school furthered the bullying by others at her last school.
The tragic story of Amanda, who was loved by her family and under professional care, should serve as a warning about online dangers for teens and how vulnerable young people can be, said psychotherapist Matt Bulkley of Therapy Associates in St. George, Utah.
Bullying is commonplace online
Today, bullying is not limited to the schoolyard. In fact, online bullying and real-life bullying are often combined to harass. A recent study of 4,400 11-to 18-year-olds, showed that 65% of students who reported being the target of cyberbullying in the previous 30 days were also the target of school bullying during that same time.
Because bullying online is so prevalent, parents must make it part of an ongoing dialogue as they discuss Internet issues with their kids, Bulkley said. He explained, “In many ways, the cyber-world children are exposed to presents more dangers than the real world.”
Unfortunately, kids often avoid talking about being cyberbullied, he said. They may fear being blamed, they worry what others might think about them, the bully may be revealing a secret they don’t want their parents to know, or they might fear others will think they are over-reacting to the bullying. Having regular calm and understanding discussions with your child about Internet issues will help them know you will always have their best interests in mind.
“The more parents make this a habit, the less uncomfortable it will become for both parents and children,” Bulkley said.
What parents should know about sexting
Most parents know the word “text” by now. Sexting is the slang term for sending or posting nude or partially nude images or video via a phone, computer, or other electronic device. Some parents might be astonished that at age 12 Amanda had been lured in to flashing a webcam, but the real astonishment is that it happens so often, said therapist Peter Kleponis, Ph.D., author of “The Pornography Epidemic.”
The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy and CosmoGirl.com
commissioned a survey and found that 20% of teens have sent or posted nude or semi-nude pictures or video of themselves, and 39% have sent or posted sexually suggestive messages. Another poll showed that nearly one in five people who receive a sext share it with someone else.
“I don’t know if the girls are doing this for kicks, if their parents are monitoring it or if they even know about it,” Carol Todd said. Amanda, like many kids, discovered online video chats. “Kids find them (video chat rooms) and they just go wild on it. It’s like with kids, trying to entice them into a car with candy–with teenagers, you can entice them with sweet words.”
Bulkley said parents shouldn’t underestimate the pressures of social settings on teens. Combine this pressure with the fact that the prefrontal cortex of the brain, which is responsible for cognitive analysis and abstract thought, isn’t developed until age 25. Risks, dangers, and consequences are often missed by teens. As well, he said, puberty brings new sexual feelings. Exploring these feelings brings an excitement that encourages impulsive behavior, overriding values and principles they learned from parents and adults.
“Acting on impulse or reacting to peer pressure, some youth engage in sexting behaviors, giving no thought to these damaging actions,” Bulkley said.
Kleponis said parents need to go out of their way to discuss this issue with their kids on multiple occasions, explaining how once an image exists on the Internet it can be impossible to erase and that acting inappropriately online can have lasting consequences. As well, creating child pornography is illegal and a teen can be charged with a crime.
“A shocking and unforgettable way for parents to get this point across to their children is to ask them how they would feel if they came across a nude photo of their parent online,” Bulkley said. “Most children are disgusted and shocked of the thought of this. Parents then reinforce the idea that this very dilemma could happen at some future point to their children’s kids if they put photos of themselves out through sexting.”
A parent’s job is never complete. Good kids make mistakes, and the consequences can spiral out of control for a child or teen. It’s easy to say, “That couldn’t happen to my child,” but the truth is, bad things happen to good kids in good homes.
“The most important advice I can offer to parents is to make it the highest priority to communicate with your child about important issues on a daily basis,” Bulkley said. “In these rapidly changing times with technology and the Internet, children are exposed to challenges each day that are far beyond what past generations had to deal with. These challenges can create a variety of mental health problems for youth, and parents need to be proactive in assuring their children are protected from these dangers and receive mental health treatment for them when it is is needed.”