ALTAMONTE SPRINGS – For a while, John Halligan kept a Facebook page, and it was a popular one that attracted the maximum 5,000 fans. But the middle-aged engineer from Vermont eventually soured on the whole concept of a social media page and deleted it entirely.
He found he had become skeptical, although somewhat amused, at the idea of other middle aged friends constantly posting status updates on Facebook, calling them a bunch of “40-something year-old teenagers out there.”
But a key reason for his discomfort with social media sites, he said, is how incredibly popular they are with teens, even children, who seem to want to communicate only in an electronic way, through social media sites, email and text messaging – and, unfortunately, who find that relaying information behind the safety of a computer screen gives some of them the ability to be as cruel and vicious as they like.
The Internet age, Halligan noted, has even created a new and insidious social dilemma, called cyber bullying.
“It’s not that complicated,” he said. “It’s bullying through the use of technology. I should have seen this train wreck coming.”
But even though some people might simply dismiss this problem on a few wayward kids, Halligan said it’s not that simple. The problem today is a lot more pervasive than ever before, he said.
“This isn’t a kid problem, it’s a human race problem,” he said. “The kids are just doing it more often than we (adults) are.”
On Tuesday, Halligan brought his anti-bullying message to Annunciation Catholic Academy in Altamonte Springs. As the driving force behind an anti-bullying law in the state of Vermont, Halligan now speaks around the country on the problem of bullying and its impact on teens and their families – and on how much worse the problem has gotten in the Internet age.
“I remember the kids who did this stuff,” he said. “They typically did it for audience effect. It exploits an imbalance of power. It could be emotional, it could be physical, or it could be relational.”
Halligan was invited to speak in Central Florida as part of the Stand Up To Bullying program, an ongoing educational and awareness effort by the Holocaust Memorial Resource and Education Center of Florida, which is in Maitland.
“We are hopeful you will walk away with a new perspective on this subject,” said Bryan Joseph, the moderator of the program and a member of the Holocaust center’s board of directors.
Joseph noted that Halligan spearheaded the Vermont Bullying Prevention Law of 2004, and added, “Mr. Halligan has been outspoken about the need for more attention on bullying, cyber bullying, and teen depression.”
And Halligan feels so passionately about this issue, Joseph noted, because of a terrible tragedy in his own life.
“Mr. Halligan lost his son to suicide at age 13,” Joseph noted. “John is here this evening to share with you Ryan’s story.”
Halligan noted that his son Ryan was born on Dec. 18, 1989, “One week before Christmas. It was one great Christmas gift.”
His son had some language development and some physical development delay issues, and was in special needs classes until the fifth grade. But there wasn’t really a serious problem in his life, Halligan said, until the boy entered seventh grade.
For some reason, Halligan said, that grade level seems to be a turning point when students start down the dark path toward bullying.
“I have yet to find somebody who says ‘I love seventh grade, it was a great year,’ ” he said. “That seems to be a turning point. I believe there’s a meanness switch that clicks on right around the 7th grade. That seems to be the time to bully someone. Sure enough, his bullying problems started in seventh grade.”
Although Ryan was no longer in a special education class, he was struggling academically and was not a natural athlete, and another student began picking on him for that.
But it was actually conversations through email and the Internet that pushed Ryan over the edge, he said, including a rumor spread online that Ryan was gay, and a campaign of cruelty by a girl at his school who started an online conversation with Ryan, pretending she liked him — when it was all just a vicious hoax to publicly humiliate him.
“This girl pretended to like my son online,” he said. “It was all a big joke. One of the major lessons I learned is I had completely underestimated the effect of emotional bullying. This world is very different from the one we grew up in. It’s not about throwing punches, it’s about throwing words.”
After discovering that the girl had been leading him on, Ryan committed suicide on Oct. 7, 2003. Halligan recalled that about two weeks before Ryan’s death, the teen approached his parents and told them his progress report at school was about to come out, and it would be a bad one.
When his parents tried to console him, Halligan said, Ryan responded by saying ” ‘What’s the sense of living, I’m just stupid, I’ll never amount to anything.’ I thought he needed a pep talk. What we really needed to do was stop, take a deep breath, and ask him, ‘Ryan, are you suicidal?’ Don’t mess with this stuff. If you’re not a mental health professional, don’t try for a pep talk – take action. I know it’s a scary question. But you have to deal with it as a parent.”
After Ryan’s death, Halligan lobbied the Vermont Legislature to pass a new law against bullying.
“We define bullying in Vermont as a repeated act intended to intimate, humiliate or ridicule,” he said.
But he cautioned that the definition can’t be overly broad.
“When you call everything bullying, it dilutes the real definition of what it is, so the kids don’t take it seriously — ‘Everything is bullying.’ ”
Halligan now speaks around the nation about this problem, urging parents and teens alike to take the challenge of cyber bullying seriously, and to take advantage of community program likes the one at the Holocaust Center to fight back. Called Upstanders, it is focused on helping children understand that one person can make a difference by standing up to protect another from bullying.
“The Holocaust center has a great program,” Halligan said.
To learn more about the center’s anti-bullying program, visit Stand Up To Bullying.
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