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Mar. 29 2010 - 5:55 pm | 3,744 views | 0 recommendations | 15 comments

Cyberbullying and the suicide of a high school athlete

In all seriousness: teenagers, if you’ve ever had the romantic notion that after you kill yourself, everyone will love you and miss you, then you haven’t been following the postscript of the March 21 suicide of West Islip, N.Y., high school student and star soccer player Alexis Pilkington.

That sounds a little cruel, because certainly plenty of people do love and miss the 17-year-old senior, who was set to play small-college soccer on her home Long Island after graduating in June. However, plenty of people have decided to treat her in death like apparently she was treated the same way in the waning days of her life — hounded by cyberbullying.

Suffolk County (N.Y.) police are investigating whether any criminal charges can or should be brought in the cyberbullying that apparently plagued Alexis Pilkington before she killed herself at her home. While plenty of people are ready to blame cyberbullying — the act of online harassment that’s quickly replacing getting the shit beat out of you or having your lunch money taken as the most popular form of bullying — for the girl’s decision to end her life, her family said she was undergoing counseling for an unspecified problem. “She was sick,” the West Islip Tribune quoted an uncle as saying. “She was fighting an illness we’ll never understand.”

Almost one month before Pilkington’s suicide, a speaker came to her school to discuss his son’s 2003 suicide, and how after the fact he discovered his son fighting off classmates online, or what were to become known as cyberbullies. It’s not known whether Pilkington attended that session, although school officials were quoted in local newspaper as saying that as a popular girl and sports star, she probably wouldn’t have.

At this point, it’s unclear exactly the nature of cyberbullying against Pilkington — who was doing it, what it was about, and why it was happening. Some friends have pointed the finger at Formspring.me, a new social networking site that allows users to register so they can ask and answer questions from other users, and have those questions and answers streamed to their Facebook and Twitter pages. Only a few days before Pilkington’s suicide, the company got a round of venture capital funding and made its big move from Indianapolis to Silicon Valley. I presume this is not the kind of big publicity it wanted right about now.

A tribute video that takes a moment to lambaste Formspring.me.

Is cyberbullying responsible for Alexis Pilkington’s death? I’m not sure there’s a definite answer to that. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention lists “isolation” as a contributing factor to suicide, and no doubt being constantly harassed online, particularly from peers or people you thought were your friends, can be incredibly isolating.

Legally, cyberbullying is not treated as an accessory to murder or manslaughter in case of suicide. On March 29, nine teenagers were charged in the high-profile cyberbullying of Phoebe Prince, a 15-year-old Irish immigrant to South Hadley, Mass., who killed herself Jan. 14. The charges were related to harassment and violation of civil rights (though two teens with statutory rape charges show that not all the alleged problems were online in nature.)

All we really know is: cyberbullying doesn’t help. And we know that for the most part parents, stuck in a generation gap where back in their day bullying required face-to-face contact, aren’t taking it seriously. I went to a talk at my son’s junior high school delivered by John Halligan, the same parent who appeared at West Islip High. More than 150 chairs were set up in the gym. Seven parents showed up.

As with old-time fist-in-the-face bullying, the problem is getting parents to believe their sweet little child is capable of something so nasty, but what makes cyberbullying especially problematic is that those parents are even less inclined to believe those words can hurt more than sticks and stones. (My wife and I just took texting off my 10-year-old daughter’s cell phone when two girls who have been friends started barraging her with disparaging remarks, rather than going through the dead end of confronting their parents about it.)

Also, as this scathing West Islip Tribune editorial points out, maybe growing seeing their parents flip out during youth sporting events, Tea Party rallies and long lines at the grocery checkout have given kids the idea that flipping out is an acceptable emotion to be used at any time.

“I learned it by watching you!”

What’s even more unfortunate is that the cyberbullying of Alexis Pilkington isn’t resting after her death. Despite attempts to take down objectionable posts and photos as quickly as possible, an RIP site set up on Facebook is still rife with disparaging comments and obscene pictures. That’s resulted in another Facebook site ripping those who ripped her on the other site, which of course has attracted people to rip Alexis Pilkington on that site, too. A 15-year-old in West Islip has put up her own anti-cyberbullying Facebook site in response to all of this (the pre- and post-life activity), but who knows when that site will get blasted, too? (And, by the way, people have set up scores of malware sites for those who look at their pages to find out more regarding Alexis Pilkington’s death.)

Unlike the cyberbullying Pilkington apparently received before her suicide, it appears that much of the post-death traffic is coming from those who don’t know her, especially because I’ve seen references to the notorious message board denizens of 4chan.

Technically, that would not be cyberbullying, but trolling. No matter. Just remember, teens, that while you imagine yourself looking down from Heaven as the masses cry out your name, you’ll also be saying a lot of other people taking the opportunity to sully your name  without you around to defend it.


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  1. collapse expand

    “Is cyberbullying responsible for Alexis Pilkington’s death? I’m not sure there’s a definite answer to that.”

    Sure, there is. The answer is that, while apparently not the sole cause, it played a huge part in it. Are you reluctant for some reason to hold the Internet medium responsible for what it empowers, good or bad?

    We can always go the PCs-don’t-kill-people route, but look what that cop-out hasn’t done for gun control.

    The Internet is a wonderful invention with (inevitably) some evil side effects, one of which is the serving of mob freedom over the individual kind. A good place to start on this problem is to challenge the myth of the Internet as a thing for personal empowerment and see it for the mob-rule tool it can so easily become. Only then do we have a chance to mitigate that problem. We make technologies humane by making them serve humane goals.

    Just my take. My heart goes out to Alexis, her friends, and her family.

    • collapse expand

      My reluctance is only because it’s hard to assign blame. I don’t know that cyberbullying could drive an otherwise unafflicted person to suicide, and in the case of Alexis Pilkington, what we know is: it didn’t help.

      I agree with your point in that parents of teens, who generally have no idea how any of this stuff works, needs to figure out how it works, how it works for good, and how it works for ill. It’s easy to see evidence when a bully has beat the snot out of your kid. It’s not obvious to see when your child is being harassed online.

      In response to another comment. See in context »
      • collapse expand

        But it’s not hard to assign responsibility–the culprits are right in front of us. The wolf pack that went after this girl did so deliberately. They are responsible for their behavior and its consequences. The Internet, while obviously not capable of being personally responsible for anything, served as a tool for the bullying. Nothing is gained, in my opinion, by portraying a perfectly clear matter of right and wrong as far more nuanced than it actually is. Nor, for that matter, by using ignorance as an excuse for cruelty. Teens who target the different, the afflicted, the unattractive, etc. sure as heck know what they’re doing down to the last detail. It’s why they’re so very good at it. There’s a name for underdeveloped morality–it’s called youth.

        The Internet makes a nasty weapon in the hands of cowardly gangs. We can face that fact and work to make the Internet less of an advantage to them. We let things like the free market, Internet technology, military-contracting culture, etc. run free at our own great peril.

        In response to another comment. See in context »
  2. collapse expand

    I was actually going to write something about this after following the story in Newsday.

    The kids are missing the big picture here and there anger and outrage – while maybe cathartic for them – is misguided.

    Alexis suffered from depression. This is an opportunity for the school and its counselors to teach the students about this. The first article about Alexis’s suicide (the day after) quoted some of her friends as saying they couldn’t believe she would kill herself because she was pretty, smart, popular and a great athlete. Guess what? Pretty kids kill themselves. Popular people suffer from depression. Her death was not caused by anonymous comments on Formspring or nasty notes on Facebook. Those things might have contributed to her mindset that evening, but Alexis was sick before any of those sites played a part in her life.

    Most of the kids do not understand that depression is not sadness. Hell, most of the parents don’t understand that either. A little education on the real subject at hand can’t hurt, while rallying the troops to boycott a website and feeding the flames of an already emotional situation can definitely hurt.

    The school would do well by bringing in a group like To Write Love on Her Arms to discuss depression and suicide with the students. At least West Islip is acknowledging the suicide. When a young girl from my sons’s high school killed herself this year, the school refused to say it was suicide and then turned away any attempts by TWLOHA and other groups to talk to the kids about suicide.

    There’s an opportunity here for the West Islip community and the parents who are helping their kids go on a crusade against the wrong enemy are missing it by a longshot.

    • collapse expand

      Michele, you make a great point that this would be a great opportunity to educate kids on depression. Of course, it’s simpler to blame the technology, and no doubt teens and parents need an education on how to use it, and how it’s abused. However, kids (and parents) also need to get the message that suicide isn’t just for the stereotypical troubled teen. Heck, look at the case I wrote about recently regarding a softball star in California:

      http://trueslant.com/bobcook/2010/02/26/california-softball-stars-suicide-stuns-her-community/

      One thing that might be emphasized as well is how depression, anxiety and other problems manifest themselves in particular when there is a major transition — divorce is commonly cited. But the achiever killing himself or herself near or right after high school graduation is more common that you’d think. One of my nephew’s classmates, who had high grades and a basketball scholarship to a small school, killed himself right after graduation.

      In response to another comment. See in context »
  3. collapse expand

    Through an adult’s eyes, children and teens appear to be brutal with each other. The truth is that they’re ignorant. They aren’t aware of who they are socially, they often lack empathy (a learned behavior), and they frequently have strong feelings they do not understand.

    An incident like this happens when someone feels stepped on, doesn’t understand his/her worth, and suffers from depression. It’s not just a matter of discussing cyber-bullying. The cyber thing is not for the kids. IT’S FOR THE PARENTS. If you’re a Mom or a Dad it means you should be monitoring what your kids are posting on the Internet and texting on the phone. You should spend time talking to your kids about it.

    There are many pundits trying to express their points of view regarding this tragic event. At the end of the day, we’re dealing with inexperienced individuals, insufficient guidance, and poor parental monitoring. That’s why this happens.

    Say a prayer for those who teased this girl. Some day they may realize what they did. I hope they will be able to live with themselves when that happens.

    • collapse expand

      Great points, Jake. I don’t think anyone who may have harassed Alexis Pilkington meant it to come to this. They probably had no endgame in mind. But parents have to take control of their kids’ media and online use, and they have to know what’s going on with it. Your point about inexperienced individuals, insufficient guidance and poor parental monitoring is good. I’m stunned by the number of parents in my age group (35-44) who blithely dismiss their ignorance about technology, while their kids zoom ahead of them. You can’t let that happen.

      In response to another comment. See in context »
  4. collapse expand

    Bob, I blogged this in a slightly different way today — and thanks for writing about it; as someone bullied almost daily for three years in high school, I know what an unbelieveable nightmare it is. It must be taken seriously and it is not; the victims are always blamed and the perps get away with it — which only increases their power and sense of impunity.

    • collapse expand

      Caitlin, I think in the main schools at least pay more lip service to bullying than they did when you were in school, for what it’s worth, though often that ain’t worth much. We pulled our two older kids (younger kids weren’t in school yet) out of Catholic school because my oldest son had some confrontations, and the school was just not equipped to deal with it. I’m not sure it wanted to, given the potential of pissing off the paying customers. Our public school, I’ve found, is much more on top of things. When there have been reports of sexting in the junior high or cyberbullying in elementary school, the district is on top of it and trying to do something about it.

      Certainly, that didn’t happen in South Hadley, Mass., where they were acutely aware of what was happening with Phoebe Prince, and did nothing. Don’t know what West Islip knew about Alexis Pilkington. It’s very probable it was nothing — after all, she was, by all accounts, pretty, popular and smart.

      All we can ask the schools is to put their foot down when they can. Unfortunately, if the bullies’ parents aren’t willing to step in and help, then stopping the problem is almost impossible. To me, that’s the most frustrating thing about bullying.

      In response to another comment. See in context »
    • collapse expand

      “It must be taken seriously and it is not; the victims are always blamed and the perps get away with it — which only increases their power and sense of impunity.”

      You’ve said it all. Exactly. There’s more than a subtle cultural undertone of she-was-sick-so-what-could-we-have-done-about-it, as if the rights of the vulnerable are somehow less important than those of the tough. Or something to be considered separately. Funny–if we really placed such a high value on toughness, we’d stop treating the behavior of cowardly packs as examples of strength and the presence of, say, emotional troubles as an example of weakness. Moreso than the Net, even, these teens have been empowered by sick values.

      In response to another comment. See in context »
  5. collapse expand

    To become an adult you have to forget the teenage mindset. To deal with teenagers you have to recall it. They are not simply in a transition, but a development phase, and aggression/bullying should be treated just as seriously as depression (should be treated). It’s a power rush to make someone cry, and every parent should be held responsible for making sure their kids don’t become addicted to that rush.

  6. collapse expand

    Just like drunk drivers who have caused the deaths of others, these kids and their parents will have to live with the consequences of their actions for the rest of their lives. I am sure that some of them are in a long-term living hell of guilt and remorse, while others are tra-la-la-ing along. Just like former gang members who have found the courage and character to change are the best anti-gang messengers, it might help curb this stuff if some of the honestly remorseful told their stories.

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    About Me

    A youth sports blog written by Bob Cook. He contributes to NBCSports.com, or MSNBC.com, if you prefer. He’s delivered sports commentaries for All Things Considered. For three years he wrote the weekly “Kick Out the Sports!” column for Flak Magazine.

    Most importantly for this blog, Bob is a father of four who is in the throes of being a sports parent and youth coach in an inner-ring suburb of Chicago. He reserves the right to change names to protect the innocent and the extremely, extremely guilty.

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