by Mike Ferguson
(St. Charles, MO) – The headlines coming from Florida ring eerily loud for some Missourians.
Reports from the area quote Polk County, Florida Sheriff Grady Judd as saying he’d arrest the parents of two online bullies if he could. Two teenage girls have already been arrested in connection with the suicide death of 12-year-old Rebecca Sedwick.
Authorities say five months of online bullying and occasional incidents of in-person bullying led to the suicide, which happened last month.
The case that defined “cyberbullying” to many Americans happened in Missouri and the victim’s mother now crusades for an end to it through a Missouri-based foundation. The Megan Meier Foundation, named for the 13-year-old girl who took her own life in 2006, is run by Tina Meier, who discussed the very personal impact of the chain of events during a new interview on “Missouri Viewpoints”.
Megan was “friended” on the then-popular MySpace by what she thought was a buy about her age. After many online conversations with “Josh”, the messages suddenly changed. They went from those of a friend to attacks, insults and what Tina calls “cruel messages”.
It turns out that “Josh” didn’t even exist. The account was set up by a former schoolmate and her mother after a falling out between the girls. Before Megan could learn the truth, she took her own life in her bedroom.
Many of today’s adults don’t understand why name calling, rumors and other insults delivered digitally often have a bigger emotional impact than face-to-face taunts had a generation ago. Tina explains that it’s not just the words, much of the difference comes from the changes in our culture.
“…now we have the technology that it’s not just a word that’s said about you, that you’re embarrassed or hurt. Now it goes out on social media or it goes out on the apps on the phone, and now everybody seems to know.
“Even if it’s maybe ten kids, if feels so enormous to children because that cell phone follows them everywhere. So, with every beep, with every text, with every comment, every upload, it feels so impactful to them and they start feeling isolated.”
Even if parents don’t understand it, Meier warns that cyberbullying must be taken seriously and the earlier it’s spotted, the better. She also says the warning signs can be obvious but, at the same time, easy to dismiss.
“It is anything that’s out of their normal behavior. If a child starts not wanting to go to school, their grades are dropping, they are changing their eating habits…they can’t wake up in the morning because they haven’t slept half the night.”
Those might be indicators of bullying or cyberbullying but Meier says the red flags to watch for have to do with your child feeling or acting isolated.
“They are avoiding social events. So, if they used to go out and hang out with their friends and they’re not doing that now.
“If they, literally, go into their room and they don’t want to talk, they barely come out for dinner and, if they do, they don’t want to talk and you start seeing that change and those behaviors, absolutely please don’t think it’s normal kid behavior.”
Meier hopes more parents see these warnings signs of problems but also doesn’t want anyone jumping to conclusions. She recommends taking the child to the pediatrician as well as contacting teachers, school administrators and school counselors to compare notes and make them aware of your concerns.
It might be a physical or mental health issue but, seemingly more often now, it could be related to cyberbullying.
The Megan Meier Foundation stresses prevention as a long-term solution. Tina Meier recommends that parents and schools talk with children about the way they treat each other both in person and online even before they have a cell phone.
By the time kids are middle school or high school age, according to Meier, the digital culture is already ingrained and established behaviors, including bullying, are hard to change.
So, while our constantly improving technology offers new access to information, financial services, health care services, home security and other modern conveniences, the solution to a residual problem from the latest devices is really old-fashioned.
It’s parents instilling the right mindsets in their children their entire lives. It’s families, faith communities and school role models setting the right examples. It’s teaching children to be strong enough to know how to handle a bully while being smart enough to get help for themselves or someone else before a life is in danger.
Those solutions, it turns out, don’t require 140 characters on Twitter, an upload on Facebook or a cell account with unlimited texting. They require adults talking face to face with children while the right messages are absorbed quicker than new app can be downloaded.
On the web:
Megan Meier Foundation: www.MeganMeierFoundation.org