A Florida teenager committed suicide last week because of cyberbullying. Tovanna Holton, 15, was recorded by a “friend” while bathing, according to the Daily Beast. Without Tovanna’s permission, the friend uploaded the video to Snapchat, where viewers took screenshots and began to post the images on other social media platforms.
One of the viewers was Tovanna’s most recent boyfriend, who posted the video on Twitter after they broke up—also the morning before Tovanna killed herself, according to her friend Christian Coyle-Watts, who spoke to the Daily Beast.
“[He] posted it, trying to expose her in a derogatory way,” said Coyle-Watts, who described the intent of the video as “body appreciation.” “He did it just because he knew he could, and it would hurt her feelings.”
Another friend, Zoe Vereen, said that she saw Tovanna at the beach the week before her death and people were “calling her names.”
Tovanna’s mother, Levon Holton-Teamer, told WFLA that her daughter had been bullied before and had hinted that something was wrong leading up to her death.
Holton-Teamer found her daughter on the bathroom floor bleeding from a headshot June 5. Tovanna had used her mother’s gun to kill herself. A spokesman for the local sheriff’s office said that the events leading up to Tovanna’s death are under investigation.
Tovanna’s story is an all-too-familiar scenario that we’ve seen previously in the high-profile stories of teenagers such as Tyler Clementi, Jessica Logan and Amanda Todd who committed suicide after being harassed online by their peers. According to the National Bullying Prevention Center, nearly 20 percent of high school students have experienced cyberbullying. And 90 percent of students who have been cyberbullied have also been bullied offline.
Where Holton’s story becomes unique is the aspect of revenge porn—that is, the posting of nude images or video of someone without their consent. The vast majority of revenge-porn victims are assaulted by an ex-boyfriend, which Tovanna experienced. But the initial poster appears to have been a so-called friend, which happens in just 7 percent of revenge-porn incidents, according to the website End Revenge Porn Now (pdf).
Bullying is nothing new, especially for teenagers, and though it’s always been devastating for the victims, it takes a new dimension each time technology springs forward. What’s meant to be (yet) another way to connect and share also becomes another way to torture and shame. The easy connections mean that stories come and go quickly, since there’s always something new to talk about. But it also means that incidents are spread further and faster than ever before.
We’re long past the era of “telephone,” the old game in which one person passed a message along from ear to ear. It’s a wild new world, where images and video can be disseminated to hundreds, if not thousands, with the click of a “send” button and reshared outside the initial social network just as fast. Incidents that would once have circulated only around a schoolyard can now circulate around the world. And that range means a whole lot of strangers have the opportunity to comment and pounce on a single person at once.
It’s devastating to be the target of hundreds, if not thousands, of people using varying words to send the same message: “You ain’t s—t.” I’ve been on the receiving end of it. I’ve had to shut down social accounts and lock others before I went to sleep at night so that I didn’t wake up to an onslaught of people telling me how much they hated me and how worthless I was or how I should die. Have you any idea what it’s like to be afraid to turn on your phone or open your computer? And this is coming from a moderately level-headed adult. What kept me from going crazy was remembering something that my deceased grandmother used to say: “Just keep living.”
I can’t even imagine how a teenager deals. To see your nude image spread around as if it’s a trading card, for strangers to critique your body? To be called all types of names by your peers and strangers alike? And knowing that all of it sticks around on the internet forever, in some form or another?
It’s hell. But eventually the noise dies down; eventually you graduate from high school, and college; and God willing, your chances of facing it as an adult become much less (unless you do something crazy like sign up for a reality-TV show). We have to remind kids that high school is a phase in their lives, that it’s OK to ask for help and tell an adult when they’re feeling overwhelmed, and that as bad as it seems, as the anti-bullying slogan goes, “It gets better.” Eventually.
Demetria Lucas D’Oyley is a contributing editor at The Root, a life coach and the author of Don’t Waste Your Pretty: The Go-to Guide for Making Smarter Decisions in Life & Love as well as A Belle in Brooklyn: The Go-to Girl for Advice on Living Your Best Single Life. She is also a blogger at SeeSomeWorld.com, where she covers pop culture and travel. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram.