Bullying in the Digital Age

Updated: Jul. 27, 2017 at 5:54 PM EDT
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SAVANNAH, GA (WTOC) - Cyber bullying is worldwide and people are willing to say more through a keyboard than they are face to face.

With this new age of technology, it's causing more and more depression, anger, and suicides.

Cynthia Bolinger of Effingham is a grandmother who wishes she could have done something to help her teenage granddaughter.

"It was the hardest thing I've ever had to go through. I found her that morning," she said.

Dr. Ben Spitalnick is a pediatrician in Savannah who is giving advice to parents.

"Parents should always have access to your child's social media and texting accounts. They should be able to monitor conversations," he said.

While several school systems won't talk about specific cases, they won't allow it.

"Bullying will not be tolerated," said Dr. Quentina Miller-Fields, Savannah-Chatham County Public School System.

Police are also weighing in on the stark reality of the cloud and the real dangers of cyber bullying.

"Kids think because they did something on the internet and they go ahead and delete it, it's gone. It takes one person to screenshot it, save it, or send it to another person, and then another person gets it. It's always out there, so as long as it's in that cloud, we can always retrieve it," said Corporal Dion Hurley, SCMPD.

Dr. Spitalnick says while bullying isn't new, social media is, and it's a big problem that's getting out of control.

"Anytime a child has either real or perceived power over another child and uses that for aggression, that's bullying," Dr. Spitalnick said.

You have children younger and younger logging onto social media, but they don't necessarily have the mental skill set to handle it, especially when bullying is involved. Pediatricians are seeing emotional stress, anxiety, headaches, and bellyaches.

"In extreme cases, we do have children commit suicide or have other significant outcomes because of the effects of bullying that could have been prevented," said Dr. Spitalnick.

As of 2015, the Center for Disease Control reported suicide as the third leading cause of death among kids as young as 10-years-old.

You may remember when an eight-year-old in Cincinnati committed suicide this spring after an apparent bullying situation in his school's bathroom.

"Most of them that are doing the bullying are only doing it because somebody has done it to them or they're being treated a certain way by somebody else – either somebody in their family or in the community," said Cpl. Hurley.

Suicide is also the second leading cause of death in ages 15 to 34. It's happening close to home and in our very own backyards.

"Losing Lexi was very hard. Forgive me if I cry," Cynthia Bolinger said.

Bolinger says her granddaughter Lexi, who she calls her daughter because she raised her since she was a baby, also committed suicide this spring.

"I think it was from bullying," she said.

She says 15-year-old Lexi was full of life, in the JROTC, and had dreams of flying jets – but her life was cut short. Cynthia says she was completely blindsided, having no clue her loved one was having suicidal thoughts. She says she later found very nasty messages sent to Lexi on her social media accounts.

"I wish I would've had her password. I could see the front page, but I couldn't see the direct messages," Cynthia said.

So, do you know your child's social media passwords, or who they're texting while ignoring you at the dinner table?

"A lot of children will hide cyber bullying because they're worried that their cell phones, their accounts are going to be taken away, and that's a shame. You should be open with your child but also have open access to their social media, their texting, before things become a problem and before they feel like they need to hide things from you," said Dr. Spitalnick.

Cpl. Hurley, a juvenile detective, gave us his opinion on things while he was doing a summer youth camp. Almost everyone in the room said they've been bullied before, at least once.

"As parents, we have to be more responsible than we used to be as far as our kids and social media, because most parents didn't grow up with social media and it's a new trend that they're not used to that's affecting this whole community, and the outcome of some of these kids' lives," Cpl. Hurley said.

On the justice side, Cpl. Hurley says it can get to extreme levels – even children facing serious charges like involuntary manslaughter.

"For those who are perpetrators of such, there are consequences," said Quentina Miller-Fields. "There could be a suspension, it could be expulsion, and there could even be some legal charges pressed as well."

"And you're not being a tattletale, and in many cases, the administrator or counselor can handle it confidentially, but don't let it get to the point that you're disturbed by it or you can't get away from it, because we want to know as quickly as we can," said Superintendent Randy Sherouse, Effingham County Schools.

So, it's all about prevention. Dr. Spitalnick says it starts with peers stepping in and helping others they see being teased, as well as parents getting involved. Dr. Miller-Fields says you should also have an open dialogue with your children, as well as the school system.

"A lot of things that happen over social media over the weekend or after school hours were brought over into the school, so my message to those persons is to be careful what you post on social media," said Dr. Miller-Fields.

Every parent should know what their child is getting into on the worldwide web, even if that means taking a class.

"They should know how to use social media accounts. They should know how to check texts. They should know web pages that they've been to and how to check histories, and they should know how to parent proof their child's phone so they don't have access to things they find inappropriate," said Dr. Spitalnick.

"You don't want another parent to go through this. You don't want to lose another beautiful child. The pain is just unbearable," Cynthia Bolinger said.

Cynthia says the worst part is not ever having answers. She says she will be starting a foundation in Lexi's name.

Also, the Savannah-Chatham County Public School System hosts a yearly bullying prevention conference. This year, it will be held the Monday after Christmas break. It's free and open to the public. For more information, call 912.395.5584.

There are several online resources as well:

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