Sue Scheff: Cyberbullying and Suicide by Connect with Kids

teencyber.jpg“Days after Ryan’s death, I got the courage to go back into his room and for whatever reason, I thought his computer might unravel some of the mystery. So I sat down at his computer…”

– John Halligan, Ryan’s father

Today, several states are considering legislation that would make cyberbullying a crime. This is in response to the suicide of 13-year-old Megan Meier, who hung herself in October 2006 after she was hoaxed, harassed and humiliated online. The bully in Megan’s case turned out to be a 47-year-old woman — a neighbor who won’t be prosecuted criminally because there’s no law that she violated. Megan’s parents want to change that.

The Halligans, whose son Ryan also committed suicide after being bullied online, understand this issue all too well.

It was 6:30 a.m. … morning routine at the Halligans. Ryan’s older sister opened the bathroom door.

“I felt like I couldn’t get any words out. All I could say was, ‘Ryan, dead. Ryan, dead. Bathroom.’ I couldn’t put a sentence together,” says Ryan’s sister, Megan Halligan, 18.

Ryan didn’t leave a note, but his dad found some clues.

“Days after Ryan’s death, I got the courage to go back into his room and for whatever reason, I thought his computer might unravel some of the mystery. So I sat down at his computer,” says John Halligan, Ryan’s father.

Halligan found hundreds of saved instant message (IM) conversations. John reads one that was written two weeks before Ryan died:

“It started off with the other boy starting the conversation, saying, ‘is this the last time I’m going to hear you complain?’ And, ‘you’re finally going to kill yourself?’ was the question. And my son said, ‘Yep.’ And the other boy replied, ‘Phew, it’s about F-‘n time.’ And my son replied back, ‘You’ll hear about it in the papers tomorrow.’”

Recent surveys show that 42 percent of kids have been bullied online. One in four has been bullied more than once, and 58 percent of those bullied never said a word to their parents. That’s why, experts say, parents should keep computers out in the open where they can read what’s on the screen. Parents also should talk with their children about cyberbullying, set up clear rules for communicating online, and learn who they are IMing and chatting with.

Even with precautions like these, cyberbullying can find its way into your child’s life. The Bryants, whose daughter, Erica, was also bullied online, learned that just because your kids are home doesn’t mean they’re safe.

“It was in my own home, but even in my own home, I wasn’t safe,” says Erica Bryant, now 18.

“I hated instant messaging. I hated the power it had to get in our house and hurt her,” says Linda Perloff, Erica’s mother.

“I’d also like to warn parents that you need to dig a little deeper in your child’s life, especially if they’re withdrawing from you. Take the time to snoop, if you will, into your child’s life,” says Kelly Halligan, Ryan’s mother.

Tips for Parents

Depression associated with Internet addiction comes not from the technology itself, but from the loss of other connections in a person’s life. Parents should be concerned if kids are not spending time with friends. (Eddie Reece, M.S., L.P.C., psychotherapist)

Instead of forcing kids to get off the computer, try engaging them in conversation. Start by showing interest in what your child is doing online. Curiosity is an excellent healing approach. Once you have the child talking, you can suggest more fulfilling activities. (Eddie Reece, M.S., L.P.C., psychotherapist)

Although the Internet can be a dangerous place, parents should not become overly fearful and ban kids from using the computer. Realize your child’s future success depends on being savvy with technology. (Kathleen Fitzgerald, director, CyberCamps)

Parents need to become involved in their children’s Internet use. Go online with your child. Teach them to make smart decisions online. (Kathleen Fitzgerald, Director, CyberCamps)
Chat rooms are among the most dangerous places on the web. (James Murray, Police Chief, Peachtree City, GA)