Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Editorial: Halting text bullying at the source

We hope some good will be done by the courage of Deanne Teka who told the story of her daughter's death to the Weekend Herald. It was not perhaps an exceptional story, which makes it all the more important. The circumstances, if not the tragic result, may be familiar to many parents of children and teenagers today.

Mrs Teka's 12-year-old daughter, Alex, was bullied at school, but not in the way most of an older generation remember. Alex Teka was bullied by phone text. The cellphones that most people carry today are a potent form of communication, especially in the hands of the young who seem to live on them. Cellphones can be more than a convenience, they are a kind of social badge that interrupts face-to-face conversation anytime anywhere and can make the receiver feel very important or popular. Not many young people could resist answering a call or opening a text message, even when it may be hateful.

Text must be a particularly insidious weapon of cruelty. Messages are necessarily brief and blunt. They find the victim, wherever that person may be. There is no voice to try to reason with or to cut off. Stark print remains in the mind long after it is erased from the screen. Turning the phone off, as many have suggested, does not stop text messages arriving as soon as it is turned on again. And turning the phone off means missing calls that might be welcome.

Telephone companies, you would think, could solve this problem. Cellphones are among the wonders of the microchip that keep us constantly astounded with the range of services they are making possible. Surely they are capable of blocking calls from certain numbers. They already provide caller identification. A bar on further calls from a bully should be as easy as any other option the technology offers. It might not be in the interest of telephone companies to let receivers block calls but nor is it in their interest to be an instrument of harassment.

There seems no other practical solution. The suggestion that schools should ban cellphones is plainly unrealistic. The best that schools can do is try to keep them turned off in the classroom. Even if it was possible to banish them entirely from schools, that would not stop inveterate bullies from misusing them after-hours. Education Minister Steve Maharey has asked his officials to report on text bullying and what schools can do about it. But that is probably the extent of the action he can take.

The best response to text bullying is probably the same as to any other form. Childhood is a hard school in which children quickly learn that not everybody is naturally well-disposed to them. They need varying degrees of help to find the confidence to understand and ignore the personal deficiencies that turn some people into bullies. Once these deficiencies are understood by all children it is in fact the bullies who need most help.

They usually choose victims who stand out from the crowd in some way - physically, emotionally, intellectually - and may be vulnerable because they have not yet learned to draw strength from their individuality. The bully preys upon such people in a forlorn attempt to find self-worth and social approval. But it is easier to say this than it is for parents to convince a child that his or her tormentor deserves their pity and, if possible, an act of friendship.

Bullying, as the Teka case illustrates, is not always violent and by no means confined to males. Verbal and psychological cruelty probably does deeper and more lasting harm. When transmitted by text it is calculated and cold. If phone companies have the technology which can stop it, they must.


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