The Poison of Cyber Bullying

I was the victim of cyberbullying. That experience taught me so much about the impact our words are having not just on each other but on our whole society.

I was the victim of cyberbullying.

Please direct your attention to these two photos and give ‘em a good up and down. The first, taken just before I put on my Elsa gown; the second, at the very end of the day. Both were taken on my cell phone and neither have been retouched or filtered in any way. 

Now ask yourself: What do you see? 

Pretty. Ugly. Thin. Fat. Over or underdone. Flaws and blemishes and imperfections. Some sparkly chick and a magical sea dog, standing conspicuously in a dishevelled courthouse conference room, after a busy day. 

I was the victim of cyberbullying. That experience taught me so much about the impact our words are having not just on each other but on our whole society.

As the subject pictured, I of course, see other things:

A single mother of a little girl who was leaving that evening for the duration of summer. A single mother on the hardest day of her year. A little girl who spent three hours that morning, helping brush out a synthetic wig and hand wash the pleats of a ten-foot train. A little girl who said it was the “best last day” because she “got to watch her mama make all those kids happy.” 

A silk dress, creased. 

A silk dress creased from bending down, so she could get eye-level with Florida’s most vulnerable youth to give “warm hugs” and reassurance on what would become one of the most significant days of their lives…

Something she knew they could not quite grasp. 

Tear-stained cheeks. 

Tear-stained cheeks, from listening to the remarks of Eckerd Connect’s Executive Director, Brian Bostick – as he illustrated the perseverance of 26 families who had overcome obstacles most of us could never grasp, on a day dedicated to celebrating hearts being made whole again. 

I was quickly reminded, however, that the internet sees through a harsher lens. 

I’m the only girl of six children, and having been raised in a house of boys, I can assure you, I’m no stranger to insults. So when I was first sent a screenshot of a few choice comments, I shrugged and laughed them off. But then, I considered my purpose as a social worker and as a parent. I considered those kids, and bullying…

And how the consequences of such have seeped like poison through computer screens and smartphones, behind the closed bedroom doors of our children. How this bullying takes form in school shootings, teen suicides, hate crimes and eating disorders. How we wake up each morning to a new headline and continue to push the buck and point the finger, instead of looking inward to our own negative contribution. 

When we’re threatened, our first reaction is to level the playing field. I’m ugly? You’re uglier. I’m dumb? You’re dumber. I admit it: my knee-jerk reaction was to click on the respective profile and give them a five-second sizing.

But when we find ourselves falling into a retaliative pattern, we must take cognitive steps to unlearn our bad habits. 

What’s the reason for the disproportionate number of shootings? Why is our country so divided? I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Empathy is not taught; it’s modeled. And as with all other marks of strong character, the time it is most difficult to exercise is when we need to the most. 

When I glanced at the commentator(s)’ profile picture, do you wanna know the first thing I noticed?

He is a father and a husband. He has a beautiful little girl. I wondered, “Is this how she’ll be raised to feel about herself? Is this how she’ll treat others?” 

I started to reply, pausing to consider that if I comment or write this piece, I will inevitably open myself up to a continued debate as to the worthiness of my appearance. Did I want to invite that in? I looked again at the picture of my daughter standing beside me, holding the wig. How she’s heard me tell her countless times that she should pride herself not on her indisputable beauty, but on the content of her character. These comments were a drop in the bucket, and had way more to do with their own self-worth than mine. So who would I be to buckle under fear or vanity? 

I was the victim of cyberbullying. That experience taught me so much about the impact our words are having not just on each other but on our whole society.

As I tell that little girl, there’s a lesson in every scar: 

January: National Slavery and Human Trafficking Prevention Month
February: Eating Disorder Awareness Month 
March: Youth Violence Prevention Week
April: Child Abuse Prevention Month
May: Mental Health Awareness Month 
June: LGBT Pride Month 
July: Minority Mental Health Awareness Month
August: Women’s Equality Day
September: Suicide Prevention Month
October: Domestic Violence Awareness/Bullying Prevention Month 
November: Family Caregivers Month/Suicide Loss Day
December: Anger Awareness Week, Disability Awareness, Human Rights Day 

How many reminders do we need to treat each other right? How hard is it to just be nice? It’s easy to add a banner to your profile picture or pin a ribbon to your lapel, but until you’re in those shoes or care about someone else who has been, you just don’t really get it.

Before reading this, had you heard of Reunification Day? Did you know what it was? Teachable Moment Alert: It’s when families celebrate the closing of their Child Protective Services case. It’s when children are taken out of foster care to be reunited with their parents, after having spent months or years away from home – while mom and dad completed their case plan under the thumb of a very broken system. 

I wasn’t there to look perfect; I was there to pay my respects, serve my community and make those kids smile. I’m proud to say I did that, and that I’ll continue to do that whenever I can. 

And I’m not here to elicit an apology or a debate. But I will echo the things I tell my little girl. I’ll remind you that no one’s perfect – not in action or outward appearance. I’ll urge you to consider your glass house and remember the times you’ve felt bruised or broken or shamed. And I’ll encourage you to take immediate steps in righting your wrongs, whenever possible. Because when you double down, and become so intent on dismissing the voice of your own conscious – you’re setting a tone that this is acceptable for all those little girls and boys looking up to you. Are you raising a healer or a hurter? A shooter? A victim? The one penned as the reason in a suicide note? The one hanging from the bannister in your living room? Each of our actions cause a ripple, and we don’t get to dictate how others respond in the wake of our waves. We can only best assert ourselves in an effort to do good. You might not think of what you’re about to say as cyberbullying but before you post – stop and think, will my words and actions add value

I can submit this piece to my editor, knowing mine will. Can you press “comment” and say the same? For tomorrow’s sake, I sure hope so.
(Written in response to comments left on the Pasco County Sheriff’s photo.)

About Jenny Penland 5 Articles
Jenny Penland, is a working mama who specializes in high-conflict family law and child welfare. She blogs out of catharsis, though finds the writing of bylines akin to the toil of inscribing one’s own tombstone. Jenny’s a fierce advocate for the brazen, the balanced, and the unapologetically multifaceted. She and daughter, Kennedy, enjoy traveling, creating, growing, and living the full width of their days

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