We’ve all heard the horror stories of young adults and children having hurtful or embarrassing photos, video and/or speech about them posted on the Internet for the world to see. But did you know that cyber-bullying can be as simple as sending an email to someone who has indicated they do not want to have any further contact with you? I also have a personal dislike for all the chain emails that go out, especially those that indicate something will or won’t happen if you don’t forward it on to ten or more of your friends.

Why are we experiencing this almost epidemic of malicious behavior? One reason is a lack of empathy and compassion, which are both a behavior and an attitude. As a behavior it is the capacity to place oneself in another's shoes and feel or relate to what they are experiencing. Empathy as an attitude is keeping one’s mind and heart open to feelings, ideas, and concepts that may differ from what you yourself hold to be true. Compassion is a presence of being where one holds wisdom, understanding, love, appreciation and respect for all beings in his or her own heart. The Buddha and other spiritual leaders teach us that we must even feel and radiate compassion for our enemies.

Another factor is that anonymity can encourage kids and adults to be crueler online than they would be face-to-face. Even though the Internet is an extraordinarily valuable tool for our time it can also tend to de-personalize the people using it, especially for those who lack empathy. This aspect makes it much easier for cowards to throw jabs, hurtful words and become vicious with someone from a distance. For example I seriously doubt that either of the two Rutgers students who posted the embarrassing video footage of their fellow student Tyler Clementi on the Internet realized their lack of empathy and compassion for his sexuality would cause Tyler so much shame and humiliation that he would take his life by jumping off the George Washington Bridge. Tyler was a lovely, sweet and talented young man who harmed no one in his choice to be a gay American college student. Perhaps had these students been taught empathy, compassion and mindfulness at home, church, mosque, temple or school this terrible tragedy could have been averted?

Programs like Facebook, Twitter and MySpace need openness but freedom of speech should also take into consideration that words can be powerful weapons and if not used mindfully can inflict deep and hurtful psychological wounds. Inflicting injuries from a distance is in itself a cruel and inhuman manner to respond to another being’s feelings and sense of self. From both a Zen and a psychological view, if you have an unwholesome intention and are consciously choosing to attack others, you’re limiting your own capacity for change and stunting the creative unfolding of your own life. Your energy is being wasted on the futile effort of trying to force the external world to conform to your vision. The mental and emotional effort required maintaining this negative energy and pretense is enormous. Having wise intention is more than merely being ethical; it’s necessary for one’s psychological well-being and clear thinking.

Then there are those, especially children and teenagers who may normally have a strong sense of self and compassion but find themselves giving in to “group thinking” and becoming emotionally hurtful. For various reasons they can become swept up into activities that are incongruent with the values and behaviors they were taught. Divorce, a change in family dynamics or friends and even moving to a new neighborhood can stir up deep unconscious feelings of resentment, hurt, loss and abandonment. Often simmering on the surface of these feelings is anger. Acting out this anger is easier than struggling with the deeper issues that require awareness and mindfulness of the sorrow, loss and vulnerability children feel when sudden and shocking changes occur. It is not only best to teach your children strong values and codes of wise and right conduct but also discuss with them how to handle those moments when they are pressured by their peers or predatory adults. Several of the children I grew up with in the 60's ended up in spiritual cults, one of which was in the top 10 percent of my high school graduating class. He was bullied spiritually into submission by a cult leader Guru that caused him enormous pain and suffering.

So how can we eradicate this malevolent behavior? Ghandi said you must be the change you desire. This starts with coaches, teachers, parents and others who need to mirror compassion and empathy along with understanding and care in all situations, even in the most extreme of life expectancies.

I think it would be great to create a bumper sticker that says, “IT’S NOT COOL TO BE CRUEL!” I council my patients to talk with their children and teens at home over dinner, in the car and in the family living room on how to be more courageous, empathic and compassionate. It is important for them to understand the destructive nature of cruelty and how it can destroy lives. They also need to learn how the values of creativity and hope can inspire and help people feel that growth is possible. This way they can discover that contributing to another being’s growth and transformation is far superior to tearing down or taking apart their sense of self. Of course the best way for children to learn this lesson is to see it in action through their role models and parents. All the best heartfelt discussions can fall on deaf ears if the caring adults are unable to set an example and “walk their talk.”

As Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young sang, “Teach your children well.” From this great lyric we can imagine and grow an entirely new cyber generation of mindful compassionate beings who are more tolerant of all races, colors, creeds or sexual orientations. We can all live in Peace. So let’s all join together and become more mindful NOW!

Author's Bio: 

Ronald Alexander, Ph.D. is the author of the widely acclaimed book, Wise Mind, Open Mind: Finding Purpose and Meaning in Times of Crisis, Loss, and Change upon which this article is based. He is the Executive Director of the OpenMind Training® Institute, practices mindfulness-based mind-body psychotherapy and leadership coaching in Santa Monica, CA for individuals and corporate clients. He teaches personal and clinical training groups for professionals in Integral Psychotherapy, Ericksonian mind-body healing therapies, mindfulness meditation, and positive psychology nationally and internationally since 1970. (www.openmindtraining.com)