• Law, Policy -- and IT?

    Tracy Mitrano explores the intersection where higher education, the Internet and the world meet (and sometimes collide).


Rebecca Ann Sedwick

How technology changes the ability to inflict harm.

September 15, 2013

In seventh grade, when I was 13, I think I made my boyfriend, Michael, a bit nervous. It was Halloween, and our parish school, St. Augustine’s, had a little party whereby we visited the convent collectively to show off our costumes and trick or treat. For Rochester, it was very warm that evening. After we left the convent and went around as a group for a while, Michael and I decided to go back to his house, just down the street from the school, before my mother would be picking me up. It was a Sunday evening.

I spent a lot of Sundays and holidays with Michael and his family. Unlike me, Michael was 100% Italian-American. (My mother was of English and Irish decent.) Sunday afternoons we often went over to his grandmother’s house, not far from where my father had grown up, and would eat in a traditional Southern Italian style. In the basement, where she had a sink and stove, long tables with plastic cloths over them to accommodate at least 20 people, and lots of pasta with red sauce, meat, vegetables and a salad. Christmas Eve was always at Michael’s mother’s house, down the street from our church. Seven fishes, and then grilled sausage started promptly at midnight. More people than I can remember, all different ages, coming and going, lots of laughter, wine and fun. After being friends since forth grade, we kissed for the first time during one of these parties when I was in sixth grade. Without saying much more about it, that is how Michael became my “boyfriend.”

Halloween night was many months later. I remember feeling restless with the costume and the trick or treats. I wanted to get back to house and have Michael to myself. When we got there and found any number of his family around, we decided to go out into the backyard. We nestled down on the ground out of sight from the grown-ups and started to kiss. As if it were yesterday, I still remember the wonderful feeling of desire welling up in me, so I encouraged him to touch me more. At first he seemed fine with it, but as I grew still more excited he said he wanted to stop. Pleas bedecked with kisses could not change his mind, so after a cool-down, we finally returned to the house in time for my ride.

The next day at school my locker had “Mitrano is a whore” written on it with magic marker. Shock, betrayal, and hurt surged through me. I acted as if nothing were wrong. Usually on friendly terms with my teachers, I chose to say nothing. I don’t even remember what, if anything, I said to Michael.

Unlike Rebecca Ann Sedwick, I did not commit suicide. For all the shame and anger I felt, that option never crossed my mind.  Not knowing her personally, I cannot begin to account for what distinguished her from me. Severity and systemic nature of the bullying, contrasting personality types and support structures, and maybe, just maybe, the difference between physical and cyberspace? Our lockers were in the main hallway. There is no way to avoid having seen the message even though in a day or two, it was gone. Probably the talk of our seventh grade class for a while, the incident eventually receded from our social scene. Michael moved on to a blond, and I discovered not too long afterwards that I was attracted to both boys and girls. But the tracks of that incident were washed away in the janitor’s pail of soapy water.

These poor, desperate pre-teens tormented by the thought that nothing can erase Internet scars that brand them. I have dealt personally with young adults, mostly women, who have trudged through the Juicycampus and CollegeACB debacles. Their mental anguish is very real. And, ironically, it is almost impossible to keep them off-line or away from the sites. The best advice I can give them is to explain the business model that is taking advantage of them and to suggest that they go after advertisers. I have never dealt with pre-teens, however, so delicate, so without experience or wisdom to bolster them in an hour of deep psychological need. I cannot imagine parents’ grief.

 But we must keep talking about these issues. And those of us who think about the role that technology plays with the law, social norms and the market have an obligation to ask: What role does the Internet play? How, and in what way? What can we do, as a society, and within our schools and communities, to mitigate the trauma for the vulnerable among our youth? If laws offer little recourse, what in our education must change to suit the digital age and at a stage of development when intense emotions combined with impulsivity makes a fatal combination. Michael might have broken my young teen-age heart. Maybe it is with that memory that my adult heart cries out for these children.


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