Alane Fagin, a child development specialist, is executive director of the Roslyn-based Child Abuse Prevention Services.
We will never know the reasons that led to Alexis Pilkington's tragic death. But the vicious comments that have been posted about her - as well as the suicides of other teenagers where cyberbullying might have played a part - compel us to take a hard look at why civility, kindness and compassion have devolved into disrespect, meanness and cruelty.
When did trolling, harassment, impersonation and exclusion - the cyberbully's tool kit - become part of the lexicon? Are these just cases of kids being kids, or are we really seeing a new norm, where teens can unabashedly post mean-spirited comments on social media sites, with the express purpose of targeting and publicly humiliating a classmate?
Thirty years ago, when someone scribbled something nasty in a bathroom stall or locker room, the school custodian was summoned and the graffiti scrubbed clean. If the offender was caught, the usual consequence was detention. Today, digital technologies are the new bathroom stalls - but there is no one to scrub clean the malicious slurs. And how do you catch and discipline a coward who has harassed online?
There's a reason the term "going viral" was coined. With the click of a button, a bully's malignant comments can spread beyond the schoolyard to a wider community - being cut, pasted and forwarded into perpetuity, despite efforts to delete the offending message. For the child on the receiving end, the humiliation and embarrassment of online harassment can be exponential. Long after the damage has been done, these postings can reappear with a simple Google search of the victim's name.
But let's not make a mistake here. Technology isn't the villain, but rather the vehicle for the incivility that permeates our culture. From the hallways of Congress to reality shows to road rage, the bar has been lowered on social discourse and the ways we treat each other. Our kids watch us, learn from us and model their behavior after us. And many of those who choose to emulate the worst of what they see use the Internet to do harm to others. Are these really the lessons we want to teach our children?
We might not be able to legislate common decency or criminalize meanness, but we can start to look at some of the legislation on the books so that children are safe and protected from bullying and cyberbullying. According to the Anti-Defamation League, New York is one of only 11 states that doesn't have an anti-bullying statute in place.
The West Islip district where Alexis had been a student had started an Internet safety committee, and a bullying-prevention committee had been formed two years ago. A comprehensive anti-bullying law would further clarify the problem, empower schools to do more and create accountability. A law won't stop all bullying, but it would start to address the problem and attempt to balance the right to free speech with a student's right to feel safe in school.
While most kids want to do the right thing - we're already seeing this from the friends of Alexis' who've taken a stand against cyberbullying and are using the Internet to enlist others to do the same - we need to work harder at countering the forces that drive our children to follow examples that take them off course. Our moral compass - as well as the moral compasses of the children using digital technologies with integrity - must redirect the others back to the norm of kindness, caring and compassion.
Character counts. Parents must start the difficult conversation on moral and ethical behavior, articulate clear expectations on what is and what is absolutely not appropriate behavior, and, at the same time, model respectful and civil behavior themselves.
Schools need to continue this dialogue with bully- and cyberbully-prevention programming, strong codes of conduct and safe learning environments where all children are valued. They need to foster a climate of respect and civility, promote social literacy, and help to develop caring, capable digital citizens. And policymakers must enact meaningful legislation - not knee-jerk responses to an incident.
My sympathies go out to Alexis' family and friends. Let's not miss the opportunity to make her legacy the dialogue that has begun in living rooms, classrooms and boardrooms as children, parents, educators and the community come together to transform our culture of meanness to one that values kindness, respect and civility.