Ryan Patrick Halligan was born in Poughkeepsie, New York in 1990. His parents described him as a shy, sensitive, and affectionate young child with an infectious smile that early on drew people close. Before he entered school, his parents had concerns about his speech, language, and motor skills development, and from pre-school through fourth grade, they enrolled Ryan in special education services.
The family moved to Essex Junction, Vermont, where, by the fifth grade, he encountered face-to-face bullying on a regular basis in his school. Rumors soon circulated throughout the school that Ryan was gay. By middle school, his classmates continually teased and harassed him for having a learning disability and for allegedly being gay. They soon extended their taunts against Ryan into cyberspace.
Ryan displayed many of the symptoms of youth targeted by cyberbullying: he spent long hours on his computer, and he was secretive regarding his interactions on communication and information technologies. His parents saw him manifest several changes in his behavior: he increasingly lacked interest in engaging in social activities that included his peers, and he exhibited a pronounced change in his overall attitude, his appearance, and his habits.
On October 7, 2003, feeling that he could no longer live with the constant and escalating abuse, Ryan Patrick Halligan took his life. He was 13 years old.
The American Psychological Association passed a resolution calling on educational, governmental, business, and funding agencies to address issues of face-to-face andcyberbullying. In the resolution, they particularly addressed acts of harassment “about race, ethnicity, religion, disability, sexual orientation, and gender identity.” In addition, the resolution specifically emphasized the high rate of bullying around issues of sexual orientation and disability:
“WHEREAS children and youth with disabilities and children and youth who are lesbian, gay, or transgender, or who are perceived to be so may be at particularly high risk of being bullied by their peers.”
While schoolyard bullying and harassment have long been problems for young people in our nation’s schools, the advent of advanced information and communication technologies have now allowed this abusive and destructive practice to extend to virtually all aspects of a person’s life.
What has come to be called “cyberbullying,” like “face-to-face bullying” (also termed “real life” bullying), involves deliberate and repeated aggressive and hostile behaviors by an individual or group of individuals intended to humiliate, harm, and control another individual or group of individuals of lesser power or social status. Cyberbullying involves information and communication technologies such as Internet web sites, e-mail, chat rooms, mobile phone and pager text messaging, and instant messaging.
In the first detailed study of its kind to address incidents of cyberbullying on LGBT youth, Blumenfeld and Cooper found that 52% of LGBT youth between the ages of 11 to 22 reported having been the targets of cyberbullying several times; 54% had been bullied on their sexual identity and 37% had been bullied on their gender identity or expression in the past 30 daysalone. Cyberbullying attacks included electronic distribution of humiliating photos, dissemination of false or private information, or targeting people in cruel online polls, among many other means of attack.
The Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network (GLSEN), in its 2015 National School Climate Survey investigating school found that 55.5% of LGBT students across the country felt unsafe at school based on their sexual orientation, and 37.8% felt unsafe because of their gender expression. About one-third of LGBT students missed at least one full day of classes in the past month over safety concerns.
GLSEN released in 2013 its first “Out Online: The Experiences of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Youth” finding LGBT youth almost three times (42% vs. 15%) more likely to be bullied or harassed online than heterosexual students and twice as likely to have been cyberbullied via text messaging (27% vs. 13%). And 32% of LGBT respondents were sexually harassed online during the past year. This was four times as many as their non-LGBT peers. And 25% of LGBT students were sexually harassed via text message during the past year.
“Online victimization contributed to negative self-esteem and higher depression. Youth who experienced bullying and harassment both in person as well as online or via text message reported lower grade point averages, lower self-esteem, and higher levels of depression than youth who were bullied only in person, only online, or via text message, or not at all.”
In the most recent National Civility Survey (KRC Research, 2017), a record high of 69% of U.S. residents across the spectrum of age believe that their country has “a major civility problem”: 75% perceive that incivility has reached “crisis levels” in modern life in terms of personal relationships, government, business, media, and on-line. And 56% believe that it will get even worse in the next ten years.
We must not view bullying and harassment as simply youth problems and behaviors, but rather, investigate the contexts in which bullying “trickles down” from the larger society and is reproduced within the schools. Young people, through the process of “social learning,” often acquire bullying and harassing attitudes and behaviors, and they also often learn the socially sanctioned targets for their aggression.
If we are ever to interrupt the vicious cycle of bullying and cyberbully in our schools and in our society at large, one necessary step in the process is to make unacceptable abusive behaviors by adults.
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