DIMOND: Bullying and cutting go hand in hand

Two young Florida teens, just 14 and 12, have been arrested for vicious cyberstalking that led a classmate to commit suicide. Felony charges were filed after the 14-year-old posted an admission to the bullying on her Facebook account and then gloated about it.

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The local sheriff in Lakeland, Florida, announced he was looking for a way to arrest the older girl’s parents in connection with the cyber-caused suicide since they had done nothing to stop it.

Can I get some applause for that idea? In my book, it is parents who are responsible for keeping track of what their children do.

But it was a sentence buried in one of the first accounts of the suicide of 12-year-old Rebecca Ann Sedwick that caught my eye. Poor little thing climbed to the top of an abandoned silo and jumped because she just couldn’t take it anymore.

“In December, the bullying grew so intense that Rebecca began cutting herself and was sent to a hospital by her mother to receive psychiatric care.”

When I was 12 and another kid said something hateful, we chanted back, “Sticks and stones will break my bones, but words can never hurt me!” And we walked away to play with someone else.

Today, kids aren’t trained to look someone in the eye and stand up for themselves. They’re too busy looking down at their cellphone or iPod, texting instead of really communicating with other human beings. We’ve created little technological zombies tied to the gadgets we give them because we’re convinced they need a phone to stay in touch with us.

I talked to my longtime friend Louise Palanker about all this. She’s an author, producer, director of documentary films and a selfless mentor to children.

Louise is a teen expert of 20 years. She established the Kid’s Comedy Club at two Los Angeles Boys and Girls clubs. She wrote “Journals, Middle School Love and War,” a poignant semi-autobiographical look at childhood that sparked so much discussion among kids that Louise started a social network for tweens and teens called Our Place. Her goal was to create a safe Internet space for youngsters.

“I try to guide the kids to become better cyber citizens,” she told me. “I want them to know how much better it feels to help than to harm.” Every Tuesday night, Louise and a panel of kids appear in a live video podcast where they take questions and talk about the pain and confusion of growing up.

“Bullying comes up almost every week,” Palanker told me. “The act of bullying or the fear of being bullied underlies almost everything kids do these days … and it is relentless.” No longer can students leave the gossip and self-doubt at school and go home for an overnight respite. Now, with instantaneous Internet communication, they never get a break from the drama.

“Unless the parents come to their child at 9 p.m. and say give me the phone, shut off your computer, go to bed — there is no way to give the teen a break from this constant stream of judgment,” Palanker said. “They’ll be up texting half the night.”

If you think periodically monitoring your child’s Internet use will reveal the truth, think again. As Louise put it, “These kids are way ahead of you when it comes to technology.”

So, what about the horrific act of cutting? Where does that fit in, why do they secretly slash at their arms and legs? How prevalent is it among bullied children?

“It’s entirely common,” Louise said without hesitation. “I’d say up to 20 percent of the kids engage in cutting. It’s what they do when they are sad. Kids will write me and ask, ‘Help me hide my scars.’ I tell them, ‘You need to tell your parents or see your counselor.’ Sadly, the parents of kids who cut are sometimes a mess.”

Medical experts say it is an even bigger problem.

Dr. Leonard Sax, a Ph.D. psychologist and author, has written extensively about what he calls non-suicidal self-injury. Sax cites studies from Yale University that found 56 percent of girls between the ages of 10 and 14 reported cutting themselves with razor blades or burning themselves with matches or cigarettes. The rate was 20 percent for older teens. Sax found that while some boys engage in self-mutilation, girls are the primary group. Their motives vary from anxiousness to boredom and the action becomes addictive.

“There is now evidence that for at least some of these girls, this behavior triggers a release of endogenous opiates in the brain,” Sax wrote. “Cutting delivers a weird kind of disembodied rush.” In his book Girls on the Edge, Dr. Sax quotes one of his patients as saying, “I felt like I was up on the ceiling, watching myself do it. I was literally high.”

When teens describe this almost euphoric feeling to their peers, it can cause others to try it, too.

“It’s such a powerful emotion that it sweeps over the pain of what they are suffering from,” Palanker told me. “It tells me that these kids would rather feel physical pain than emotional pain.”

Louise suggests the Website selfinjury.com as a good place for worried parents to start to understand this macabre trend. I suggest paying attention to your child’s wardrobe. Are they suddenly covering up their arms and legs? Is there evidence in the bathroom or laundry that they are cutting themselves?

Most importantly, start an open dialogue with your children about this topic.

And a postscript from the Florida case: Vivian Vosburg, 30, the mother of the 14-year-old bully, was arrested and charged with child abuse and neglect. The sheriff says, after Rebecca’s suicide, concerned citizens directed him to the Facebook page of one of Vosburg’s children. There they found a video of Vosburg brutally beating children in her care. (She is both a mother and a stepmother.)

When her 14-year-old was arrested, Vosburg had insisted she diligently monitored her children’s Facebook accounts. Guess she missed that video.


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