What Killed Amanda Todd?
A Look at Cyberbullying and Teen Suicide
The tragic death by suicide of fifteen-year-old Canadian Amanda Todd on October 10, 2012, brought several important issues into the media spotlight. Chief among them were cyberbullying, mental health issues and Internet safety. It also sparked discussions about vigilante vengeance as Anonymous “hacktivists” trained their sights on Amanda’s online tormenter and blackmailer, whose cyber-weapon was a risqué Webcam image of the young girl taken when she was only twelve.
Certainly the online stalker’s actions were criminal and subject to legal recourse. But there is plenty of blame to go around. The last three years of Amanda’s short life were anguished by continued bullying, both online and off. Her stalker threatened to distribute the photo to her friends and classmates if she refused to expose herself in additional Webcam images: she refused and he made good on his threat. Instead of offering support and understanding, her peers became her further tormenters, until eventually she was physically assaulted and left in a ditch.
Amanda’s individual capacity for resilience is also relevant. For a variety of reasons that involve a complex dance between genetics and environment, some teens are more susceptible to mood disorders than others and Amanda was caught in just such a “perfect storm.” As a result she succumbed to depression, anxiety and panic attacks. This, of course, left her open to more bullying because those with high levels of resilience don’t always pity those with lower levels. Amanda began cutting herself, a common form of self-harm that is not necessarily a precursor to suicide. Self harming behaviors are often used to diffuse overwhelming emotions and there are therapies that have proven successful in replacing them with more effective forms of emotional regulation.
However, Amanda had previous suicide attempts under her belt—a strong predictor of future completion. Sure enough, despite receiving mental health treatment as her anxiety worsened, Amanda completed suicide a month before she would have turned 16.
In the wake of any story as heart-rending as hers, it can be tempting to look for a single culprit. “Did the Internet Kill Amanda Todd?” asked one headline provocatively, while others pointed instead to her mental state. “She didn’t kill herself because she was being bullied,” asserted an October 17 editorial published by a Canadian news organization. “The vast majority of children who are bullied don’t kill themselves. She killed herself because she was in the middle of a mental health crisis that should have been treated.”
The truth is, of course, that the driving forces behind adolescent suicide are complex. Yes, it’s true the vast majority of children who are bullied don’t kill themselves. But the same argument can be applied to mental health issues: the vast majority of those suffering from anxiety disorders or depression don’t kill themselves either. The answer to “What killed Amanda Todd?” isn’t to be found in either-or constructs. Without minimizing the undeniable culpability of her tormenters or the relevance of her mental health, it’s important for parents, teachers and policy-makers to recognize that multiple factors interact in contributing to suicide whatever the victim’s age, but particularly during the angst-ridden period of adolescence.
Researcher and suicidologist Maurizio Pompili describes suicide as “a complicated, abnormal reaction to a number of overwhelming factors,” and certainly the adolescent pre-frontal cortex is sufficiently vulnerable to being overwhelmed. Pompili also points out the well-demonstrated association between suicide and mental illness, but counters that suicide can occur in the absence of psychiatric disorders if distress and psychological pain have escalated to the point that it is no longer bearable and when the sufferer considers suicide to be “the perfect solution.”
Using “psychological autopsies,” researchers have reconstructed events pointing to the state of mind of suicide victims leading up to their death. While each individual’s situation is unique, some commonalities have emerged that can help weed out the myths from the facts about adolescent suicide. For instance, when studies assess levels of hopelessness—defined as negative attitudes about whether change is possible—hopelessness is found to be more relevant than simply depression for assessing suicidal intent. “It is not necessarily important how you feel right now,” says Pompili, offering depression as one example. “But it is important to trust whether the future would bring changes in your condition. This is particularly true for suicidal individuals experiencing the uniqueness of their suffering that, for them, has no escape and no future solution.”
Amanda may well have believed change was unlikely, considering that moving to a different city and a different school didn’t alter her circumstances. Her stalker simply distributed the humiliating photo once again within her new circle. Chances are, you’ve heard the old nursery rhyme: “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names can never hurt me.” Even if one buys that sentiment (and there’s no reason one should), the same cannot be said for photos and other images: people suffer most from cyberbullying when it involves visual ridicule, say researchers at Germany’s Bielefeld University. In a press release about the study published July 25, 2012, researcher Peter Sitzer contrasted the effects of other forms of bullying such as “derisive, insulting, abusive behavior” and found that students did not consider these tactics to be as distressing as being ridiculed with the use of photos and videos. Because digital images and videos can be easily duplicated and shared, the researchers pointed out, they have a potentially unlimited reach. Then too, images make ridicule very personal. It may be much easier to distance ourselves mentally from verbal or written attacks.
Considering that images are frequently used in online attacks, it’s rather ironic that adolescents tend to assume cyberbullying is not as harmful to victims as other forms. “Youth say that 95 percent of what happens online was intended as a joke and only 5 percent was intended to harm,” says University of British Columbia (UBC) researcher Jennifer Shapka. UBC’s main campus, incidentally, is located in Vancouver—not more than 20 miles from Amanda’s hometown of Coquitlam. Shapka’s UBC research involving 17,000 students in grades 8 to 12 finds that teens generally tend to underestimate the level of harm inflicted by cyberbullying. “Being victimized online can have consequences for a person’s mental health,” says the UBC press release about the study. “In extreme cases, there have been reports of suicide.”
Six months after the release was published, Amanda Todd became one of those cases.
So was it cyberbullying that killed her? Or was it her initial Internet behaviors that led to the humiliating image? Was it the subsequent stalking? The schoolyard bullying? The unique interplay between her genetics and environment that contributed to her capacity for resilience? Her mental health issues? Clearly, it was all of these and more.
In reference to cyberbullying, Shapka notes that “students need to be educated that this ‘just joking’ behaviour has serious implications.” But then, all of our interactions with one another have serious implications, and there are many different forms of interaction involved in cases like Amanda’s—whether online or off. Undoubtedly the vast majority of us could use education toward handling our interactions with more responsibility, compassion and empathy. In a way, we are all part of her extended environment. Rather than casting around for one scapegoat in suicides like Amanda’s, then, a more constructive approach may be to recognize that each of us is entitled to at least some share of the blame.
October 24, 2012
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