When 18-year-old Rutgers student Tyler Clementi jumped off the George Washington Bridge on Sept. 22, he may have been responding to cyberbullying, says Etzion Neuer, the Anti-Defamation League’s New Jersey regional director.
“It’s something that can have tragic and devastating results,” he said.
According to Neuer, Middlesex County Prosecutor Bruce Kaplan has not made a final decision on how to charge students Dharun Ravi and Molly Wei, who used a hidden webcam to broadcast a same-sex encounter by Clementi, a Ridgewood resident. The prosecutors’ office is seeking to determine if the perpetrators targeted Clementi because of his perceived sexual orientation.
“If so, a prosecution on hate crimes charges could be part of a strong and effective outreach and education effort to deter future such bullying,” said Neuer.
But whether this is labeled a bias crime is not the main issue, he added. While the case may involve homophobia, “it appears that the perpetrators committed this [act] without any regard for the consequences, and that speaks to the general problem with cyberbullying and misuse of the Internet.”
“Many young people spend so much time on the Internet, yet they have no sense that there are real-world consequences to their actions,” he said, adding that “parents have to work very early on with children on this issue, and it doesn’t end with high school.”
Defining cyberbullying as “intentional harm inflicted through electronic media,” he called it a growing phenomenon, as increasing numbers of young people engage in e-mail, texting, chatting, and blogging “as a central part of their social life.”
With that use comes an increase in the misuse of these technologies to “bully, harass, and even incite violence.”
Neuer said that according to the Cyberbullying Research Center, this kind of abuse affects between 20 percent and 50 percent of all United States teens.
He is not surprised, he said, given the stories he has heard from students during ADL school workshops addressing the issue.
Calling educating against cyberbullying a natural part of ADL’s mission, Neuer said “it may be motivated by prejudice, hate, or bias, based on factors such as race, religion, or sexual orientation.” But “whether related to identity-based group membership or more universal characteristics such as social status or appearance, the cruelty can produce devastating results,” he said.
The New Jersey director said that over the past several years, the ADL has developed interactive workshops for students from elementary through high school.
“While we’re known primarily in the Jewish community as being the go-to group on anti-Semitism, we’ve also had a broader mission dealing with bigotry and stopping hatred of all sorts,” he said, pointing to ongoing anti-bias programs, such as those on cyberbullying for administrators, educators, and students.
Neuer said that some students have told him “chilling” stories. “It’s so disturbing,” he said, that “many of them seem resigned to it, so they’re not reporting it.”
While those students who attend the ADL workshops seem to be helped by the program, “we often feel like it’s just a drop in the bucket. Especially with the electronic media, [we feel] we’re playing catch-up as we respond.”
Parents and administrators should not feel overwhelmed, he said, since “there are steps to put in place and ways to make improvements.”