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'Make this all go away': Cyberbullying multiplies teen pain

In the Internet age, adolescents try coping with intensified social pressures across social media

“I was like, ‘How can I make this all stop? How can I make this all go away,’” Rachel Lemmons asked herself at a tipping point when high school bullying became more than she could handle.

“The only thing I could think about was killing myself and just taking my own self out of the situation. That would just be the easiest thing I could do.”

With social media the dominant platform for communication among young Americans, taunting is no longer confined to school hours and can spread beyond the classroom. The potential for emotional damage to the victim is compounded, especially for young girls, who are more likely to experience cyberbullying than boys, according to a study recently published in School Psychology Quarterly.

Judith Margerum, a clinical psychologist, said if you got bullied before the computer age, “you went home, and there was no Internet. You were home and everything was good and you were safe there.”

But now, Margerum explained, “It’s not just isolated to the school anymore. It’s out. It’s in your entire life, and there’s nowhere to get away from it.”

Forty-three percent of teens have been victims of cyberbullying, according to research by National Crime Prevention Council (NCPC). Almost 20 percent of teens have had a cyberbully pose as someone else in order to trick them online. And the intensity can be unbearable for victims.

teen bullying at a glance
3.2 Million
students bullied each year
teens skip school everyday because of bullying
1 in 10
students drop out or change schools because of repeated bullying
of students report bullying to be an ongoing problem at their school

Source: NASP, NEA, UCEA.

'Horrible mean things'

Rachel Lemmons, bullying victim.
Al Jazeera

Before her junior year in high school, Rachel Lemmons had everything going for her - excellent grades in school, supportive family, nice friends, and a caring boyfriend. But after a breakup with her boyfriend over the summer, all that changed. Her ex-boyfriend’s new girlfriend began an aggressive cyberbullying campaign against her.

It started with prank text messages and then led to social media sites like Twitter.

“She made the Twitter account under her name, but then made it seem like I was the one Tweeting things off of the account and they were really horrible mean things,” Lemmons said. Then her peers began to turn against her as well.

“They were like, ‘we all know that it’s you, Rachel. You need to stop.’” Lemmons recalled being confronted with threats from her classmates. “‘We’re going to jump you. We’re going to beat you up.’”

These experiences are especially difficult for adolescents as friends become more important, Margerum explained. “When you get into adolescence, you compare yourself to your peer group and you look to your peer group to kind of see, do you fit in.”

“If your peer group starts to attack you,” Margerum says. “Then you’re going to start feeling bad about yourself, and that’s going to impact your mood. So there’s likely going to be depression.”

Some signs of bullying include: mood change, voluntary isolation, distance from friends, and lack of interest in going to school.

Lemmons, whose grades were slipping, said she felt the latter. But, because of social media, skipping out didn’t relieve her of the trouble. In her absence, her peers would tweet things like, “‘Hey, did you guys notice that the school smelled so much better today since Rachel wasn’t there?’” Lemmons said. Some of those Tweets were retweeted up to 50 times, amplifying the hate to a much larger arena than the classroom.

Dad would be 'disappointed'

Such embarrassment pushed Lemmons to have suicidal thoughts. In general, youth bullied by their peers are more than twice as likely to report suicidal thoughts and more than three times more likely to report a suicide attempt, according to a study in the Journal of Pediatrics.

But despite having suicidal thoughts, Lemmons said the thought of hurting her family was a major deterrent. “I knew that if I were to kill myself, my dad would be so disappointed in me and stuff. And I just didn’t want them to feel like that.”

For adolescents to overcome the emotional pain of bullying, they must regain feelings of self-worth. Margerum said bullying victims need to know that they do have power.

“Just because someone is bullying you, it doesn’t make you a different person, it doesn’t make you less worthwhile.”

Al Jazeera America presents an intimate look at the lives of teenagers at the crossroads of now and the future on “Edge of Eighteen.” Fifteen stories. One incredible journey. Tune in Sunday at 10 p.m. ET / 7 p.m. PT.

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