RIP: Our bullying story

By:  Cyndi Sweeney

An essay:

October 25, 2012

Teenagers are talking. 

They’re talking candidly online about suicide.   Type the words Amanda Todd into YouTube and over 10,000 results appear.

Amanda Todd’s story is a heart-breaking account of bullying, cyber-bullying, a cry for help and a tragic suicide.

Cyber-bullying is sparking debate about the need for policy change and accountability on bullying.  Yet, the case of Amanda Todd is not isolated.

Her video is not new.

She is not the first to cry out for help online.

Amanda’s video, “My Story:  Struggling bullying, suicide and self harm” was posted on YouTube five weeks before her suicide.  In black and white, she holds up pieces of paper, one phrase at a time, revealing her pain and asking for help against the horrific bullying she was experiencing.

R.I.P. Ciara — the title of a YouTube memorial dedicated to Ciara Pugsley from County Leitrim in Ireland.  Ciara tragically took her life September 20, 2012, almost three weeks before Amanda.  At first glance, the story is chillingly familiar.  She was a 15 year old girl and as described in the Daily Mirror in London, she was “ruthlessly bullied on a new social networking website”

A memorial video was posted on YouTube just three weeks prior to Amanda’s suicide.  By September 21, the video had received more than 5,600 page views.  By October 25, it had more than 61,800 views, views that reach far beyond Ireland.

Ciara’s father offered parents of teenagers advice in The Irish Daily Mirror.  He said he “regrets not checking up on what his daughter was doing on the web and urged parents to be aware of the risks,” the Mirror wrote.  Ciara’s father went on to warn, “Just check up what your kids are looking up on the internet…there’s a lot of hurtful stuff out there.”

RIP Kayla — “She was bullied to death RIP” is the memorial video dedicated to Kayla Marie Wright from Tauranga, New Zealand.  She was a 16 year old girl who was bullied.  The YouTube video offers hope between photographs and anti-bullying messages. She took her life on November 15, 2008.  There is also a copycat memorial video which was posted in March 2011 and has received more than 5.2 million views.

RIP Olivia — R.I.P Olivia Penpraze is the memorial video dedicated to Olivia Penpraze from Rowville, Australia.  Her YouTube video has been removed but the haunting black and white image remains of a young girl holding up a hand-written cue card which reads “to see all these evil things, that closing my eyes, or even sleep won’t make go away”.

A description below the video reads, “After many years of suffering depression due to childhood bullying this wonderful young girl attempted to take her life at 19 years old.  After being put onto life support her parents said their last goodbyes on Tuesday 3rd of April.”   The video had received more than 260,000 views as of August 10, 2012.

These are only three videos of many that are on YouTube and have been seen by children around the world.  There is one video, identical in format to Amanda’s and posts a similar title, “My Bullying Story, I get bullied just like you.”

The question begs to be asked, why so many similarities?  The ages of the girls, the way in which their videos are made, how their messages are told, are all startlingly formulaic.

As journalists report on teenage victims of suicide, ensuring compliance to guidelines aimed at preventing copycat occurrences, questions arise as to whether or not the guidelines being used actually apply to today’s teen culture.

It’s possible these ethics codes have become outdated and are crying out for improvement.

Copycat suicide is a term journalists and scholars became familiar with in the 1980s after studies proved a link exists between “media reporting of suicides and copycat suicides among youth and young adults under 24 years of age”, as outlined in the Canadian Psychiatric Association Media Guidelines for Reporting Suicide.

BBCs ethical guidelines for reporting on suicide advises journalists to be aware that the “vulnerable, especially the young, may imitate or emulate behaviours and techniques depicted.”

Journalists are urged to follow guidelines such as ones created by the Canadian Psychiatrist Association:  avoid publishing photos of the deceased; avoid repetitive or excess coverage; avoid admiration of the deceased; provide warning signs; provide alternatives.

Media coverage that Amanda Todd’s YouTube video received after her death, conflicts with several of these guidelines, including the avoidance of repetitive and excessive coverage.  A debate has followed Amanda’s death, about whether or not showing the video could actually help prevent future suicides and decrease bullying targeted at teenagers.

The Vancouver Sun published an article, “Victim’s video can help others…” three days after Amanda Todd’s suicide, reporting that Amanda’s mother had tweeted The Vancouver Sun, “I think the video should be shared and used as an anti-bullying tool.”

Taken out of context, the video itself could “promote admiration for the deceased” as outlined as something journalists should avoid, in the above media guidelines.

“Reports of suicides, at least among juveniles, appear to lead to an outbreak of other teenage suicides”, Nick Russell writes in Morals and Media, an ethical guide for journalists.  If teenagers are hearing all about suicide online from other teenagers, than journalism needs to approach teen suicide using more efficient guidelines.

Russell furthers this idea by quoting two journalists who cited Arnold Garson of the Des Moines Register: “I’ve never believed that society cures its problems by sweeping them under the carpet.  In fact, the only way to solve problems is to deal with them openly”, Russell wrote.

Theresa Campbell, an anti-bullying expert warned teachers against showing Amanda’s video.  In a Toronto Star article she defended “a memo she co-authored that cautioned school districts around B.C. about showing classes a YouTube video shot by Amanda Todd before her suicide.”  Campbell says teachers have no way of preparing themselves for how every child could react after seeing the video.

Context is essential if the video is to deliver an effective message to teenagers.

Yet Amanda’s video, with over 11 million views, is there for all ages, online.

Russell asks in Morals in Media, published in 2005, a long over-due question: “Can the news media do something more proactive to prevent suicides such as studying the causes and urging health-care reforms?”

The media coverage on Amanda’s suicide focused on the horrible outcome of cyber-bullying.   What was lost in translation though, is the true “why” in her story.

Why did Amanda turn to the online community?  Why is her video so similar to other young girls on YouTube?  What role could YouTube have played in empowering Amanda to create her video?

After Amanda’s death, the Globe and Mail ran an article which read, “Her legacy is her YouTube video, a desperate plea to make it stop.”

Here lies the paradox.

It is important Amanda’s video is her legacy, only if it serves to help educate others and help prevent future tragedies.

The video should not be her legacy if it serves to immortalize her online in a way that glorifies her suicide to other potentially fragile victims of bullying.  The ability to view the video repetitively also goes against guidelines for suicide prevention.

The Globe and Mail wrote, “the best advice is the constant, close involvement of responsible adults – parents, teachers, coaches, bus drivers, aunts, uncles….”   The article stopped short on offering suggestions as to what “close, constant involvement” actually means.

A more proactive approach, as Russell questioned earlier, might be to include the guidance on:

  • How parents and councillors can connect with teenagers online;
  • What approaches are recommended for discussing YouTube videos;
  • What online resources are available to vulnerable teens

Is it enough reporting the story or do journalists need to go further and examine the social media that played a role in the bullying and in the legacy to which Amanda’s life is remembered?

Reporter Shelley Fralic of The Vancouver Sun put the video into context, writing Amanda Todd’s video is her “legacy and, supplemented with an appropriate curriculum, should be compulsory viewing in every school in the country.”

As a teaching tool, it’s possible the video’s context can be effectively taught to teens.

As journalists, we are advised not to glorify, not to name, not to show.  With the changing online culture of teens involving cyber-bullying and suicide, ethics guidelines need to evolve to provide better context to the vulnerable.

Media’s reporting of suicide has come a long way since the 1980s when suicide reporting was first linked to incidents of copycat suicides.  In Austria, suicide reporting surrounding subway deaths used terms such as “self-murder” or “free death”, as outlined in the British Journal of Psychiatry, glorifying the victims.

Cyber-bullying is having a profound effect on youth culture.  Bullying is not new.  What is new is the relentless, intrusive way that social media invades the homes of teenagers, taunting them 24 hours a day.

What is also new is the way teenagers are using social media to communicate their distress both as a message and as a memorial.

These videos, the reporting of the videos, the viewing of the videos all have the “potential to make such actions appear possible, and even appropriate, to the vulnerable.”, as outlined in BBC media guidelines on reporting suicide.

Journalists need to be aware of the copycat potential that exists, especially on social media like YouTube and report fully and accurately to inform readers.

Journalists have a responsibility to examine the powerful role social media plays on the youth of our society.

It’s not enough for journalism to report stories on bullying and teen suicide, without including the role social media played in the victims’ lives.  In doing so, they can better inform parents, councillors and policy makers.

Possible Side Bar:

Sample Media Ethic Guidelines on Reporting on Suicide:
  • Take the opportunity to educate the public about suicide
  • Avoid language which sensationalizes or normalizes suicide, or presents it as a solution to problems
  • Avoid prominent placement and undue repetition of stories about suicide
  • Avoid explicit description of the method used in a completed or attempted suicide
  • Avoid providing detailed information about the site of a completed or attempted suicide
  • Word headlines carefully
  • Exercise caution in using photographs or video footage
  • Take particular care in reporting celebrity suicides
  • Show due consideration for people bereaved by suicide
  • Provide information about where to seek help
  • Recognize that media professionals themselves may be affected by stories about suicide

WHO Ethics Code


Soc Sci Med. 2009 Oct; 69(7):1085-90. Epub 2009 Aug 13.

“Copycat effects after media reports on suicide: a population-based ecologic study”  Niederkrotenthaler T, Till B, Kapusta ND, Voracek M, Dervic K, Sonneck G.

Medical University of Vienna, Center for Public Health, Department of Medical Psychology, Severingasse 9, Vienna, Austria.

British Journal of Psychiatry

The British Journal of Psychiatry(2010) 197: 234-243 doi: 10.1192/bjp.bp.109.074633

Morals and the Media, Ethics in Canadian Journalism, Nick Russell. UBC press 2006, pg. 117  WHO Ethics Code

CPA Public Policy Paper, Media Guidelines for Reporting Suicide

The Toronto Star, “B.C. bullying expert stands by memo on Amanda; Warned teachers about showing teen’s video”, The Canadian Press, 24, October 2012

The Globe and Mail, “Best protection isn’t legislation”, A19,  Margaret Wente, 16, October 2012 (factiva)

The Moncton Times & Transcript, “vicitim’s video can help others: mom ? Bullying victim Amanda Todd,, 15, found dead this week”, Transcript International, p. D3 October 13, 2012

The Irish Times, “Just who will the pupils talk to now?”, Sheila Wayman, October 9, 2012

Daily Mirror (London, UK), “I didn’t know my girl was bullied”, Sarah Bardon, October 2, 2012.

LA Times Ethics Code:  No mention of suicide:

The New York Times Ethics code:  No mention of suicide.

BBC Guidelines:

Ciara Pugsley YouTube:

Kayla Marie Wright Memorial page YouTube:

March 19, 2011 Hits:   over 5, 212, 498

Samantha: “If you really knew me” Dec. 11, 2011 over 2.5 million hits.

In December 11, 2011 Angelica Palladino posted a YouTube video called “My Bullying Story. I get bullied just like you.”  She made a black and white video, used hand-written notes to illustrate her distress and finished her video saying, “If you want to keep bullying me, I will end it.”  “I just want it to stop.”  It’s received 138,623 views.  Angelica has since posted several thank you videos from supporters who offered kind words and advice.  She seems to have found the support she was looking for.