On November 29, 2016, Brandy Vela sent an e-mail to her family telling them she was going to take her life. They rushed home to find her still alive, but with a gun in her hands. As they tried to convince her to put the gun down, the 18 year old aimed it at her own chest and pulled the trigger.
The unfortunate circumstances of how Brandy left this world, and the heartache those who loved her most have had to endure as a result, make her story tragic enough. But as parents, knowing why she did what she did makes the whole story that much harder to take.
For months, Brandy had been a victim of vicious cyberbullying. Text messages sent through untraceable phone apps. A fake Facebook page created specifically to harass her. Dating ads set up with her picture and details, offering up sex for free.
Her attackers were relentless. And even though Brandy brought the harassment to the attention of school officials, she had been told that nothing could be done.
On that fateful November night, it all just became too much for her to handle.
Unfortunately, Brandy’s experience isn’t necessarily a unique one. In fact, as far back as 2006, Megan Meier’s story was all over the news… A 13 year old girl who took her own life after being cyberbullied by someone she thought was a boy she had made friends with on MySpace, but who turned out to be the adult mother of a former friend. Research conducted in 2015 found that approximately 43 percent of students have experienced some form of cyberbullying. And 15 percent admitted to being cyberbullies themselves.
One of the things that is hard about cyberbullying is that it can be so difficult to truly end. Kids today use countless apps that allow for anonymous communications. Fake accounts can be created. And the bullies often lose sight of who they are hurting when they are hiding behind a screen and unable to see the direct impact.
What’s worse, limiting your child’s access to the Internet won’t necessarily protect them from cyberbullying. Their personal information and most embarrassing secrets can still be quickly distributed online by those looking to hurt them.
The thing about cyberbullying is that the bully doesn’t have to wait to see you to hurt you. And that’s one of the reasons it can feel so overwhelming to kids who are victims.
So what can parents do?
Well, the first step is working hard to have a relationship with your kids where they will want to come to you if something is going on. Of course, as most parents of tweens know, that is often easier said than done. So watch your children for signs that something may be wrong. Monitor their Internet and phone activities (and consider enforcing a rule that all electronics must be turned over to you at night.) Learn about the latest apps and social networks kids are using to communicate without parental knowledge (there are a lot of them, and the list is always changing, but this is a good place to start.)
Early intervention is one of the best ways to protect your child, but that can’t happen if you’re unaware of how that child is spending their time online. No tween wants to have their activities monitored, and you know your child best. But knowledge is power, and the more you know, the more you can help.
It’s also important to be aware of the fact that your own child could very well be the bully. Nobody wants to think of their child hurting others, but it happens. Monitoring online activity is one way to catch on to concerning behavior and confront it before things get out of hand.
The Megan Meier Foundation (an organization developed by Megan’s mother after her passing) recommends documenting everything and keeping a log of the harassment if your child is a victim. It also helps to know your state and local laws, and to utilize the assistance of school and law enforcement officials as soon as possible.
Unfortunately, there is no one approach that will forever protect your child from cyberbullying. As parents, our best option is to remain involved and aware.
All the while reminding our children as often as possible that they can always come to us.
Have you or your child had an experience with cyberbullying? What did you learn, and what do you now wish you had known then?