Kids were cruel long before the Internet.
But there is something about a mouse and a keyboard that can free the inner bully in an otherwise decent classmate.
Is it the everyday vulnerability of sites like Facebook and Formspring? Is it the chance to say something awful and not have to witness the hurt?
Whatever it is, police and psychologists may never unwind all the twisted threads in Alexis Pilkington's suicide. A police officer's daughter, a popular and athletic 17-year-old, she was a senior at West Islip High School heading off to Dowling College on a partial soccer scholarship. But none of that protected her from the ugly online taunts.
Lexi's parents say they don't think the girl was a victim of the Internet and in fact authorities don't really know whether the posts came from friends or strangers, teenagers or adults. She'd been in counseling long before the cyber attacks began and had shared her own information online as well. And yet the vicious posts had to be painful for a 17-year-old, and they continued even after death on her Facebook memorial site.
What kind of heartlessness would make someone taunt a dead girl?
It may not be possible to outlaw every act of cruelty.
The Internet didn't cause heartlessness any more than the schoolyard produced the schoolyard bully.
But maybe the companies that run these sites can do a better job policing them. And maybe the law can draw a few fresh lines.
There's just something different about a keyboard and a mouse.
ELLIS' BOOK CLUB: Hey, sorry to disappear for a couple of weeks. I was back home finishing a book project with New Orleans Saints coach Sean Payton. "Home Team," on the post-Katrina rebirth of a city and its team, arrives July 6 from Penguin.
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ELLIS' LONG ISLANDERS OF THE WEEK
Tom and Paula Pilkington
Amid their terrible grief, the parents of Alexis Pilkington have shown extraordinary dignity and depth. They've eulogized their daughter eloquently. They've been clear-eyed about the cruelty she faced. And they've declined to embrace the easy explanations, refusing to force Alexis' life into the trendy diagnosis of the moment. May her death be a one-time story. If there's ever another, may the parents show the class the Pilkingtons have.