ROME – “Words hurt more than beatings. Do they not hurt you? Are you so insensitive? What happened to me should never happen to anyone … I hope that now you are all more sensitive with your words.”
These are the words of Italian teen Carolina Picchio, who at the age of 14 took her own life by jumping out of her third-floor bedroom window, having become the victim of a vicious cycle of online bullying.
After eating a pizza with friends in November 2012, Picchio passed out in a bathroom after drinking too much. Instead of calling for help or trying to revive her, Picchio’s companions made a video in which they played with her body, imitating increasingly explicit sexual acts.
What began with a few messages about the video in a group chat turned into 2,600 likes when the video was posted on Facebook by her ex-boyfriend, drawing insulting messages and even threats from people she knew, and people she had never met.
The mocking and humiliation became too much, and Picchio killed herself the night of Jan. 4, 2013. After her death, Italian parliament in May 2017 passed a law criminalizing cyberbullying in a bid to protect minors online.
Picchio’s father, Paolo, also launched a foundation honoring his daughter, the Carolina Foundation, which is dedicated to anti-bullying efforts, particularly cyberbullying.
The foundation is working in partnership with the papal-backed Scholas Occurentes foundation – established by Pope Francis in Argentina and dedicated to building networks of schools around the world and which supports numerous educational initiatives – to jumpstart a new International Observatory for Cyberbullying Prevention in collaboration with the iDea Congress.
Presented to the press in Rome Nov. 8, the observatory for the next 4-5 months will be carrying out intensive research on cyberbullying, the results of which will be presented during a major conference, expected to be held in April.
According to Ivano Zoppi, general director of the Carolina foundation, said research will be carried out on three primary levels: an evaluation of cyberbullying and its varying manifestations, the impact of cyberbullying and laws that have been approved criminalizing it, and prevention, particularly methods proven to be effective.
In comments to the press, Jose Maria Corral, president of Scholas, said his organization has listened to young people from all over the world and in each country they have visited, “youth have problems and they don’t have answers.”
“If we want to change the world, we have to change education,” he said, repeating words spoken to him by the then-archbishop of Buenos Aires when the organization was launched.
Referring to increasing levels of depression and thoughts of suicide among teens, many of whom feel alone, he recalled the story of a young woman from Mexico who as a teenager went to study in the United States. While she was there, she became the victim of harsh bullying, an experience which, despite eventually learning to forgive her bullies, has left a lasting impression.
It is because of stories like this, Corral said, that the observatory was established in order “to give information that is not available today, information to generate concrete proposals” not only for awareness, but prevention.
Francis, he said, has insisted that “the principle ones responsible for bullying are us, the public, because behind the bullying there is a silent group” which allows bullying to fester, and which almost encourages it, “so that the aggressor feels…applauded.”
“We don’t want silence anymore, we want to fight bullying by taking a clear position… May there no longer be empty seats,” he said.
Paolo Picchio was also present at the presentation of the observatory, recalling the words of his daughter in the letter she left before taking her life, saying that for him, they are not only a sign of desperation, but hope, since she asked for a change on the part of her peers.
Having lost “a stupendous, marvelous, athletic” daughter to bullying, Picchio said he has visited more than 300 schools and has spoken to more than 30,000 young people about the problem of cyberbullying, and “I recognize, beyond our speeches, the need to build together a foundation to carry forward in schools, in oratories, in sports centers, qualified people to do formation and education.”
Education is key, Corral said, noting how the majority of young people feel that they cannot talk to their parents, nor their teachers, if there is a problem. For those who do say something, the way family members or teachers react make them regret having spoken up.
“We have to recognize this,” Corral said, stressing the need to gather experts, young people and families together to “think about the problem in an integral way and seek realistic and concrete solutions.”
Picchio, who met Francis during a general audience in 2016, said the meeting was an important moment for him, “because it gave me impetus…It made me think that perhaps I need to do something.”
Reciting the words of his daughter in her goodbye letter, he said he was moved by Carolina’s call for her peers to “return to respecting one another, to speaking with one another.” And to those who teased her, she urged them to “go back to giving hugs, to having real friends, friends who you feel have your hand.”
“This is what we are here for today,” Picchio said, “to carry forward an enormous project, because we want to understand the problem at an international level, because only by knowing it, also in contact with youth, if we can’t eliminate it, at least limit it.”