Earlier this month, viewers across the country were stunned by a video showing the assault of 14-year-old Adriana Kuch in the hallway of her New Jersey high school and to learn that she took her own life the next evening. The cruel attack on the young woman by her high school peers was broadly shared on social media. Adriana’s father said the pain his daughter felt in being attacked paled in comparison to the humiliation she experienced online.
Bullying has always been a problem. I was bullied off and on through many of my years as a student. It was frightening and temporarily humiliating. But bullying has evolved with the advent of social media. Three major changes have escalated the impact of bullying.
The first major change involves increased exposure to embarrassment and humiliation. In 1968, the first year a bully picked on me at school, most of what he did to me was either just between us or witnessed only by a handful of people. Once it was over, it was over. I don’t remember ever carrying my humiliation into the next day, and each incident was known only by those who had witnessed it or those who heard about it during its short-lived “news” cycle.
Today, seemingly everyone has a device to document events, to share events and to view/experience these events as often as desired. That allows not only the “news” cycle to remain alive but for the entire world to witness one’s abasement. I can’t imagine the weight of that kind of ongoing embarrassment.
Recently, an Arizona man ran naked across the green at a Phoenix golf tournament. In one video, I saw hundreds of golf fans in the stands on their feet, nearly all of them with their phones in the air, capturing the event. This is our world.
Second, cyberbullying can take place no matter where the child is. When I was bullied, it was almost exclusively at school. Otherwise, bullies had no access to me or I had options for avoiding them. Today, a child can effectively be bullied while alone in the middle of a desert.
Finally, online bullying doesn’t require the bully to face the consequence of the mean thing said. I wrote a newspaper column for 30 years. Comments about my column were often kind and thoughtful, but people — many hiding behind the anonymity of screen names — said some of the meanest things on occasion. I couldn’t imagine anyone saying in person some of what they said online. In person, the speaker would have to defend themself and see the effects of their hurtful words firsthand.
Social media has allowed thoughtless people to quickly find one another. One mean comment or post can seemingly serve as a ready-made invitation for other equally thoughtless people to add mean posts of their own.
Online, a thoughtless or cruel post requires absolutely no thought and no exposure to the pain being caused. I would like to think that the bullies in the Adriana Kuch case felt remorse for their behavior following her suicide, but if she had not done that, they would never have known the tears she shed and the pain she bore in the privacy of her personal life.
A 2021 study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) discovered that 30% of the teenage girls surveyed had considered suicide — a rate twice as high as among boys. That number was 50% for girls in the LGBTQ+ population. The study proposed that these rates were rising prior to the COVID-19 pandemic but that the isolation of the pandemic accentuated them.
Even before the pandemic, teens spent much of their time staring at their phones. For some teens during the pandemic, their devices were the only link they had to their social worlds. Like it or not, young people live much of their lives in a digital world. Bullying through text, video, Snapchat, Instagram or any of the other social media options is easy and quick — and the one doing the posting doesn’t have to face the hurt they are causing. What’s more, those hurtful words or images can be viewed over and over, not only by the rest of the world, but by the victim, leaving teens such Adriana feeling isolated, humiliated and hopeless.
These issues are not exclusive to teens, but the CDC study should ensure that those of us in the mental health community are alert to these frightening statistics for the teen female and LGBTQ+ populations in particular.
I encourage my clinicians and supervisees who work with these populations to include suicidal ideation as well as an overview of a client’s social media footprint in the intake process — something that was not even an issue 40 years ago when I started my practice.
Gregory K. Moffatt is a veteran counselor of more than 30 years and the dean of the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences at Point University. His monthly Voice of Experience column for CT Online seeks to share theory, ethics and practice lessons learned from his diverse career, as well as inspiration for today’s counseling professionals, whether they are just starting out or have been practicing for many years. His experience includes three decades of work with children, trauma and abuse, as well as a variety of other experiences, including work with schools, businesses and law enforcement. Contact him at Greg.Moffatt@point.edu.
Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.