It’s 2015 and we can say whatever we want. We can criticize each other, we can spew words in any direction, and we can be offensive, prejudiced, and just plain mean. Freedom of speech has turned into freedom to bully and freedom to be cruel to one another.

The concept of bullying can be traced back to the 1500s. At that time, in its most primitive form, bullying was between 2 people: an intimidator and a victim. The bully abused the victim through physical or verbal means to gain a sense of superiority. In the past 20 years, with the rapid expansion of the Internet and social media, bullying has taken on a new form. It is dangerous, hard to contain, and hard to define: cyberbullying.

Contrary to common belief, this is not a problem that has been created by children and teens. It is an epidemic that has been fueled by adults and leaders of this country, the effects of which have trickled down to the youth with tragic consequences.

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What is seemingly a complicated problem really only has 3 basic elements:

  1. It’s funny to make fun of people

  2. The Internet is full of sites making fun of people, such as Worst Parents Ever, Hot or Not, and Fail Blog. Although seemingly benign, this sets the mental landscape that it’s OK to mock someone. Hidden behind the veil of the Internet, bullying of this kind is widely accepted because it’s humorous.

  3. Social media and the First Amendment

  4. Recently, a woman named Elizabeth Lauten, who was the communications director for Representative Stephen Fincher, went on a social media rant attacking Obama’s daughters. She stated: “Dear Sasha and Malia, I get your both in those awful teen years…but try showing a little class. At least respect the part you play. Then again your mother and father don’t respect their positions very much, or the nation for that matter, so I’m guessing you’re coming up a little short in the ‘good role model’ department…Dress like you deserve respect, not a spot at the bar.”

    With little regulation about what can be said on social media, people have the freedom to taunt at their leisure. In this case, it was an adult on Thanksgiving Day attacking 2 teenagers.

  5. Perpetual bigotry in the media and politics

  6. In December 2013, Duck Dynasty star Phil Robertson stated that AIDS exists because of God’s wrath, and that people who have AIDS deserved it due to their immorality. He then compared homosexuality to bestiality. Mr. Roberson was suspended from his show; however, politicians came out of the woodwork to defend him. Sara Palin wrote in his defense, to 4.5 million followers, that it seems “free speech is an endangered species.” Senator Ted Cruz posted on social media, “If you believe in free speech or religious liberty, you should be deeply dismayed over the treatment of Phil Robertson.” Phil Robertson was put back on the show, and continues to perpetuate his ignorant and dangerous opinions to over 12 million viewers.

It’s painfully clear why 40% of children and teens are victims of cyberbullying. The Internet makes it funny, adults do it, pop culture perpetuates it, and politicians support it.

I have been a victim of cyberbullying. It doesn’t feel good. In fact, it feels horrible. In the wake of the Boston bombing, I was temporarily thrust into the media spotlight for my actions as a first responder. The cyberbullies came out, attacking me as a person. I was called a “whore actress” and a “crisis pig.” I received threatening emails and phone calls. It is truly an unnerving experience to wake up afraid to check Facebook, email, or Twitter. But as an adult, I can shrug off the cruelty of others and still face the day; it doesn’t make me want to end my life.

It is different for children. According to the CDC, cyberbullying suicide rates account for 4400 deaths in teens and children each and every year. The suicide rate due to bullying is the third-highest cause of death in young people throughout the country. Girls are twice as likely to be victims of cyberbullying, with up to 70% of school-age girls reporting either being bullied or witnessing Internet bullying. 

National awareness of cyberbullying is gaining attention, and many websites exist with information for parents and schools about how to stop it. Kids are told to “be kind and not bully each other.”

This is not going to solve the problem. We live in a society where bullying is the norm: on TV, throughout social media, and across political platforms. Media and political icons are idolized for being mean, intolerant, and rude.

I think the only solution is to redefine what the First Amendment actually means, because right now it simply allows us to be bullies.