I arrived at work Wednesday morning to an e-mail that informed the staff of an emergency meeting. Just as I was opening it, my coworker stopped by my desk. “Did you have a student by the name of Alicia Wyles*?”
“Yes,” I replied. “She was in my 9th grade class two years ago. Why?” Even as I asked, my body tensed with dread.
I looked down at the e-mail on my screen. The message confirmed it. The emergency faculty meeting was to discuss the demise of the junior and strategies we could use for talking points with students and how to aid those who grieved.
Apparently, Alicia had attended a party during which she snorted Oxycontin, drank alcohol, and then returned home at 2:45 a.m. to take more Xanax. The combination was lethal. Because schools were closed the following day, her parents went to work thinking she was still asleep—completely ignorant to the fact that her heart had ceased beating hours ago. A friend found her.
Sitting in my classroom a few minutes later, I scoured the internet for news about the tragedy. Although nothing had been formally released yet, an underground internet forum had already started a thread on her death. What I read there made my mouth drop and my chest ache.
Although some posts were obviously from adults, parents, cautioning kids against using drugs and partying in unsafe environments, others were horrifying and stomach-turning examples of teenage vitriol. Messages like: She was a hoe that got knocked up by my friend and She was an amateur. She didn’t even do any coke. I couldn’t believe it. Twenty-four hours after her death, this was the trash that her family and friends had to read.
Last week, I had been chatting with a fellow teacher about how Alicia was doing this year in his class. He said she was doing well academically, but that she was “caught up” in a lot of the popularity posturing and social media. As I read down through this underground forum, I was shocked to see names of students at the school mentioned in connection with her, details about things she had done with them, how she deserved what happened to her—and who cared anyway?
I've read a lot about cyber bullying, and my students confirm that it happens all the time. I had just never witnessed it with my own eyes on the screen...especially not toward a girl who was no longer alive.
Social media is a huge part of teenagers' lives; in fact, I might even suggest that they are consumed by it. But it’s the crassness, the insensitivity, the outright lack of respect for other living, human beings that disturbs me. I can't help wonder if the anonymity of the web and the ease with which they can insult their peers without any consequences hardens them to emotions and the realization that these are REAL people.
Kids are suffering from depression and attempting suicides at unprecedented rates, yet we think their social media dramas are not connected? Teenagers may say that their main stress is school, but does it follow that the “school stress” they speak of means homework and classroom expectations? Or could we conclude that these school stresses have more to do with social pressures, gossip, and sexual status? I, for one, refuse to believe that the little bit of homework most teachers give is the catalyst for a mental breakdown. However, I could completely understand how a leaked, sexually-explicit picture, or a rumors spread about what happened at a party could bring a sixteen- or seventeen-year-old girl to the breaking point. Or at least to the point where she wanted to blot it all out with a hit of Oxycontin.
When asked, many kids will readily admit that to them, school is not a learning environment but a social one. It's a microcosmic world with hierarchies and a lot of secrecy aided by the cloak of online anonymity. Just this week, I was told about sites where kids "confess" to things they've done (sexual or otherwise). These sites suggest that students "let it all out" and tell the dark secrets of their school. This becomes a free-for-all for kids to gossip, slander, and bully other students (or tell about things they, themselves, have done). This online corner has become a hunting ground for predators who troll such sites looking for young, willing prey.
Often, a teenager's online world is cloaked in darkness. When asked, they will deny they practice risky behaviors or that they're being bullied, choosing instead to suffer in silence. Parents may not realize their children are so deeply involved until it's too late.
I think it's time to shine a light on the seedy online world that has such a grip on America's teenagers.
*Alicia Wyles is a fictitious name.
"So do not be afraid of them, for there is nothing concealed that will not be disclosed, or hidden that will not be made known." --Matthew 10:26