Foreword by John Halligan
October 7, 2003 will always be the day that divides my life. Before that day, my son Ryan was alive. A sweet, gentle and lanky 13-year-old fumbling his way through early adolescence and trying to establish his place in the often confusing and difficult social world of middle school. After that day, my son would be gone forever. A death by suicide. Some would call it bullycide or even cyber bullycide. I just call it a huge hole in my heart that will never heal.
Ryan’s young teen life included swimming, camping, skateboarding, biking, snowboarding, playing computer games and instant messaging. A typical array of “healthy” and “normal” teen activities … or so it seemed. My son loved being on-line, staying connected with his friends after the school day and throughout the summer. But, during the summer of 2003, significantly more time was spent on-line, mainly instant messaging. I was concerned and felt compelled to remind him of our internet safety rules.
No IMing/chatting with strangers
No giving any personal information (name/address/phone) to strangers
No sending pictures to strangers
No secret passwords
Our last rule was a safety one. I told my two older children that they had to use the password I gave them for any accounts they signed up. I promised I would not read personal messages or spy on them but, “God forbid you don’t follow the first few rules and you just disappear one day, I will want instant access to all of your activities on-line.” Never in a million years did I imagine this rule would someday end up becoming the key to unlocking the mystery of why my son took his own life.
A few days after his funeral, I logged on to his AOL IM account because that was the one place he spent most of his time during the last few months. I logged on to see if there were any clues to his final action. It was in that safe world of being somewhat anonymous that several of his classmates told me of the bullying and cyber bullying that took place during the months leading up to his suicide. One boy had bullied Ryan since 5th grade, and briefly befriended him after Ryan stood up to him in an after school brawl. My son the comedian shared an embarrassing and humorous moment with his new friend. The “friend” twisted this information into a rumor that Ryan had something done to him and, therefore, Ryan must be gay. The rumor and taunting continued beyond that school day … well into the night and throughout the summer of 2003. My son approached a pretty, “popular” girl from his school on-line and worked on establishing a relationship with her, I’m sure as a surefire way to squash the “gay” rumor.
When the 8th grade school year started up again, Ryan approached his new girlfriend in person. I’m sure he was never prepared to handle what happened next. In front of her friends, she told him he was just a loser and that she did not want anything to do with him. She said she had been only joking on-line. He found out that she and her friends thought it would be funny to make him think she liked him and to get him to say a lot of personal, embarrassing things. She copied and pasted their private IM exchanges into ones with her friends. They all had a good laugh at Ryan’s expense.
Now certainly my son was not the first boy in history to be bullied and have his heart crushed by a pretty girl’s rejection. But when I discovered a folder filled with IM exchanges and further interviewed his classmates, I realized that technology was being utilized as a weapon far more effective and reaching then the simple tools we had as kids.
It’s one thing to be bullied and humiliated in front of a few kids. It’s one thing to feel rejection and have your heart crushed by a girl. But it must be a totally different experience, compared to a generation ago, to have these hurts and humiliation witnessed by a far larger, online adolescent audience. I believe my son would have survived these incidents of bullying and humiliation if they took place before the advent of computers and the internet. But I believe there are few of us that that would have had the resiliency and stamina to sustain such a nuclear level attack on our feelings and reputation as a young teen in the midst of rapid physical and emotional changes and raging hormones. I believe bullying through technology has the effect of accelerating and amplifying the hurt to levels that will probably result in a rise in teen suicide rates. Recent statistics indicate that, indeed, teen suicide is on the rise again after many years of declining rates.
My son was an early casualty and his death an early warning to our society that we’d better pay close attention to how our children use technology. We need to study this new societal problem with a sense of urgency and great diligence. We must also be swift and deliberate in our law making and social policy development when it comes to protecting our youth from the misuse of technology against them and amongst them.
This book will prove to be an invaluable resource. It will level set the reader about what bullying is and its harmful effects. Then it will explore the increasing ways technology is utilized to extend bullying behavior well into cyberspace. It brings us up to speed on the latest research findings and maps out very concrete preventative and responsive actions for both parents and educators.
John Halligan, Ryan’s Dad
February 26, 2007