Gabrielle Molina, a 12-year-old girl living in Queens Village, New York, was found dead in her home May 22 after hanging herself from a ceiling fan. In her suicide note, Gabrielle apologized to her family and explained her actions, claiming that she had faced harsh cyberbullying from other students at Jean Nuzzi Intermediate School 109 in Queens Village. Both Gabrielle's mother, Glenda Molina, and a classmate report that Gabrielle faced constant bullying (both at school and online) that left her depressed.
Unfortunately, Gabrielle's death comes after a number of suicides related to cyber bullying incidents that reflect the pervasiveness of online harassment. A study by the American Academy of Pediatrics showed that one in six high school students reported being cyber bullied within the past year, with girls being twice as likely to report being cyber bullied than boys. Yet, this percentage is bound to increase as texting and social media become ubiquitous in the everyday life of teens. A Common Sense Media research study shows that two-thirds of teens text every day and half of teens visit social media sites daily. And as they spend more time plugged in, the risk of cyber bullying increases.
All this begs the question of what can be done to stem the recent increase in bullying, both online and off. A slew of schools have implemented anti-bullying initiatives that integrate bullying education into the curriculum, distribute information to students, and reform existing policies or create new ones. Bullying has also been addressed on a state level, where 49 states have enacted anti-bullying legislation that defines bullying and prohibits conduct associated with bullying.
However, despite the rise in programs and civic organizations dedicated to anti-bullying efforts, few bullying prevention programs have been thoroughly tested or proven effective in stopping bullying. One major difficulty in stopping cyber bullying is the nature of the harassment. Cyber bullying occurs in the world of social media, which is largely unregulated by any adults and follows students out of school and into their homes. Parents are often oblivious to online activity until it is too late. School officials are powerless to dole out punishments and it is largely unclear what their limits and boundaries are when it comes to dealing with an incident.
Thus, continuing efforts to prevent bullying must focus on elucidating the role of parents and educators in stopping bullying. The creation of school policies built to address these relationships are a key step. Additionally, programs must emphasize a change in overall school culture. A recent study showed that programs that focused on establishing the unfairness of bullying as a norm was more successful in changing behavior. Norms of behavior regarding social media usage should also be addressed. Students perceive virtual interactions to be just that — separate from reality, imbued with anonymity, and lacking in consequence. It must be emphasized that malicious words can wound more deeply than one can perceive from their side of the screen, and just as much as words said in person.