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Call for compassion

Sara Felsenstein | Monday, October 4, 2010

What started as scattered Facebook statuses on my homepage has erupted into an international news story. Tyler Clementi, a boy from my high school and a freshman at Rutgers University, committed suicide on Sept. 22. Tyler jumped off the George Washington Bridge after his roommate and a friend of his roommate streamed a live video of him having a private encounter with another male, broadcasting the video to 150 followers on Twitter.

The tragedy has deeply affected me, as I know it affects anyone who hears the story. It pains me that those students could be so cruel and reckless with someone’s life, and it pains me that Tyler was not able to see any future beyond such humiliation.

The story has reached media outlets worldwide, including the front page of the New York Times, CNN International, the Ellen DeGeneres Show and thousands of websites and blogs. While I am glad it is getting immense coverage, Tyler’s unfortunate death needs to be more than something for people to talk about. Tyler’s story reminds us of the urgent need to prevent online harassment and abuse of social networking sites.

Cyberbullying is a growing problem among young people, but it is one that is not taken seriously enough. People think of Facebook and Twitter as addicting social networking sites, not as harmful means for bullying. What makes cyberbullying so dangerous is that technology allows us to act on impulse, before conscience has time to settle. Online bullying can be done anonymously, making it easier to shake off responsibility for one’s actions. In addition, rumors and insults can spread virally, making the effects of bullying exponentially more severe.

The intolerance Tyler Clementi endured is devastating, yet his case is not an isolated one. Similar instances of bullying occur constantly. The Internet can be used as a forum for discrimination, but misinterpretation can also cause unintentional offenses. Before you broadcast an opinion online, whether via tweet or Facebook status update, consider your audience, and consider how your words could be understood out of context. In a digital arena where information is posted, bookmarked, tweeted, “liked,” copied, sent and forwarded, what you put out for the world to see cannot be taken back. Remember that the ease of pressing the “post” button does not always match up with the magnitude of the consequences.

Tyler’s parents said in a statement, “Regardless of legal outcomes, our hope is that our family’s personal tragedy will serve as a call for compassion, empathy and human dignity.” This call for compassion is imperative at college campuses, where students are still developing their identities and any blow to one’s reputation can seem absolutely overwhelming. We must make a concentrated effort to be open and accepting towards everyone, and we must be conscious of how far our words can go, especially on the Internet where the line between public and private is blurred.

The views expressed in the Inside Column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

Contact Sara Felsenstein at sfelsens@nd.edu