Submit: The Documentary

Posted by Justin W. Patchin on March 11, 2013

submit-the-documentaryI just previewed the producer’s cut of a new film on the topic of cyberbullying. Admittedly, I was skeptical at first, because I have seen these kinds of productions before and have either been underwhelmed or downright angry at the way the problem was portrayed.  But this effort was different and I think has the potential to do some good.

Submit: The Documentary” presents the perspectives of many who have experienced the problem of cyberbullying from a variety of viewpoints, including victims and parents, but also educators, researchers, legislators, and policymakers. I was glad to see many familiar cyberbullying prevention and education colleagues prominently featured throughout the film, including my friend and Cyberbullying Research Center co-director Sameer Hinduja. Together, they present a clear view of the nature of the cyberbullying problem, and offer their insights about why we need to focus more attention on it.

“Submit” includes the requisite stories of those who have been affected most deeply by cyberbullying. Tina Meier, Donna Witsell, John Lowe, and others who lost their children as a result of, at least in part, experience with cyberbullying remind viewers that these behaviors cannot simply be ignored. Their experiences, while thankfully not representative, are instructive. We can learn a lot from what happened to Megan, Hope, and Johanna, and shame on us if we don’t do things better the next time.

As much as it was important to revisit these tragic stories, and even though it was a nice change to see and hear from some of “the experts” who have devoted their careers to this problem, the indisputable stars of this film were the students. They illuminate a reality of cyberbullying that has largely escaped mainstream media.  They talk about why they do what they do, and perhaps even more enlightening, why they don’t do what they don’t do. The teens pointedly acknowledge the challenges of dealing with cyberbullying and related behaviors–most of which stem from a general distrust of adults to do anything meaningful to curb the bullying.  Indeed, most young people we speak with say the number one reason they don’t confide in adults when confronted with cyberbullying is because they fear it will only make matters worse. Mike Donlin re-affirms this perspective in his remarks that were featured in the film.

As a film intended to capture broad public interest, “Submit” walks a fine-line between presenting a narrative of cyberbullying that is accurate and one that is shocking, fear-mongering, or otherwise “entertaining.”  To be a commercial success, especially in the documentary genre, it seems that a film needs to be portentous, provocative, or overly alarmist.  Compared to other films that tackle this subject, “Submit” does a better job balancing the hype with the lived-reality of teens in the 21st Century. For example, “Bully,” the 2011 documentary that followed the experiences of five youth and their families, focused so much on the extremity of the problem that while I was left physically hurting for the families featured I was no better prepared to do anything about it. “Bully” left me with the impression that adults are impotent when it comes to stopping bullying because most of the adults included in that film failed in their efforts, or worse, didn’t try.

To some extent, “Submit” begins to lead viewers down a path toward a similar conclusion: that schools, parents, the police, and other adult institutions are incapable at preventing or stopping cyberbullying.  But “Submit” doesn’t stop there and carries the discussion forward, presenting some of the emerging evidence about what does work to stop bullying. Among the promising approaches highlighted is to cultivate empathy among students.  Not only will empathetic students refrain from bullying others online and off, but they will also stand up for those who are being targeted. By encouraging young people and empowering bystanders to take action, we have a better chance at making strides to reduce this problem. As Sameer states in the film: “Bystanders can be heroes.”  We genuinely believe that.  Teens see a lot more of what is going on than most adults and they are, as a result, often in the best position to do something about it.

But they shouldn’t have to do it alone, any more than schools should have to respond to bullying by themselves.  Bullying, no matter the form, is a community problem which demands a community response.  Educators, parents, police officers, faith leaders, community partners, researchers, technology companies, and yes, teens, have the power *together* to adequately prevent and respond to this problem.  “Submit” is a solid reminder and all who care about the online lives of adolescents are encouraged to check it out. Trailer here.

A Positive School Climate Makes Everything Possible

Posted by Justin W. Patchin on August 31, 2012

We have a lot of really great anecdotes and ideas from educators included in our latest book School Climate 2.0:Preventing Cyberbullying and Sexting One Classroom at a Time.  Below is one example from our friend Steve Bollar, who is a principal in New Jersey.  He is an “in-the-trenches” expert when it comes to developing and maintaining a positive school climate.  We highly recommend that you sign up for his regular “Ideas, Ideas, Ideas” newsletter which you can learn more about on his website.  Here are his thoughts on why a positive climate at school is so important:

“The climate in a school can either make everything possible or not make everything possible.” That quote is one of the most profound statements about schools that I have ever heard. It is true that instruction and curriculum are important, but neither can be effective unless the climate of the school/classroom is centered on respect, clear expectations, personal responsibility, and recognition. Every school has a climate that is developed through the actions of the school leader. Therefore, it is vitally important that the school leader purposefully works to establish the climate in the way that he or she knows will best benefit the students and staff. The other option is for the school leader to do nothing, thus leaving it up to others to set the tone and develop the climate. That climate may not be positive, empowering, or productive. Instead, it may be demeaning, unclear, and non–student focused.

A school that has a positive climate rooted in clear expectations, and supported with recognition and respect, leads to students and staff making decisions that are in the best interest of not only the school but also themselves. Roy Disney once said, “When your vision is clear, decisions are easy.” It is so true within a school. When your climate, vision, and expectations are clear, deciding whether or not to do the right thing is easy. It leads to the thought process of “that’s the way we do it here.” When students are faced with a choice of going onto a website that is inappropriate or not, whether at home or school, the climate they are most exposed to at school comes into play. Therefore, making the right decision is easier to make.

True, it doesn’t work all the time. Within my building are many students who get into “trouble” with social networks, inappropriate websites, connecting with dangerous people online, and making poor choices in the photos they post on the Internet. Two years ago, we had a large spike in the number of issues and disciplinary action related to Internet behavior. Approximately 25 to 35 percent of discipline during the school year was Internet related. The following year, we implemented a morning homeroom meeting. During this 30 minutes once a week, two adults in each classroom would lead an activity or discussion that focused on the vision and expectations of the school. This practice, once a week, continued consistently throughout the school year. The results were amazing! The number of Internet-related disciplinary issues decreased significantly, and as did the number of overall discipline issues. Problems were either handled more often at the classroom level through discussion and guidance of the teachers, or the lessons learned and reinforced during those morning meeting times guided the thought processes of the students when opportunities to behave inappropriately came up.

At the end of each marking period, my administrative team would look at the discipline report and say, “Wow!” We did not start an anti-Internet campaign or increase the amount of Internet safety training. All we did was connect with students and purposefully strengthen the climate within our building around positive clear expectations and recognition. The end result was students making better life decisions. “The climate in a school can either make everything possible or not make everything possible.”

Help With Fake Facebook Profile Pages

Posted by Justin W. Patchin on July 25, 2012

facebookImagine you receive an email from a friend that includes a link to a Facebook profile.  You click on the link and see your name and picture on the profile.  But you didn’t create it.  And some of the information included isn’t exactly flattering. In fact, it’s embarrassing, and malicious, and ruining your reputation.  Now what do you do? We regularly receive requests from people who find themselves, their kids, or their friends in this situation. The key in responding is to move quickly to gather information and to inform the proper authorities.

If you know who created the profile, ask them to remove it. Facebook has a social reporting tool that allows you to convey your disapproval, and ask that the content be removed, in a respectful way.  (You can read Larry Magid’s recent interview with Facebook’s Arturo Bejar where they discuss these options.)

If you don’t feel comfortable with that, or do not know who created it, you can report it to Facebook and it will be disabled while they investigate. If you do not have a Facebook account, you can report imposter profiles here. If the creator of the fake profile attempts to log into the account after it has been reported, Facebook will require the user to prove their identity and display a map that shows where they are at (thereby removing the veil of complete anonymity).  I think that is pretty cool! Facebook also educates the user about the consequences of identity theft. The company has developed numerous other tools to help you protect your information and reputation, including a form that allows you to request the records of an account that was impersonating you. Learn about and take advantage of all of these resources.

It is important that you collect as much information about the profile as you can before reporting it to Facebook.  Take screenshots (see our fact sheet here) or simply print out the profile and any related information.  Note the URL (web address) of the page because it includes the user ID (http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1000000XXXXXXXX) or username (http://www.facebook.com/username).  Try to identify all of the people who are connected to the profile (friends or followers).  Collect as much information about them as you can.  It might help in determining who was behind the creation of the profile.

Overall, the more information you can gather, the more easily it will be to identify who is responsible, and hold them accountable, if necessary. Once the account has been disabled by Facebook, it will be more difficult for you to get the evidence you need.  And if the account creator deletes the account before you have a chance to report it to Facebook or collect the evidence, it can be impossible to obtain information about who created it. So move quickly to capture what you can.

If you believe that what was said or posted about you on the fake profile is of a criminal nature (e.g., a threat or a hate crime) or violates your civil rights (e.g., defamation of character or libel), contact local law enforcement so that they can investigate.  This is particularly important if you feel that your safety (or the safety of someone else) is in jeopardy.  The police are trained to determine whether information contained on the site could be viewed as a “true threat,” or if it violates the law in any other ways.  The first thing the investigating officer should do is complete a formal request to Facebook to preserve the page details and accompanying account information before they are deleted by the user who created the page.  Officers can do this even before a formal investigation has begun.  The sooner this is done, the better. There are more guidelines for law enforcement officers here.

Law enforcement can also assist you in obtaining a subpoena, which is a legal order that requires a person or entity named to show up at court or to produce documents or other information specified (that could be used as evidence in a trial).  While the specific procedures can vary by state, law enforcement officers can obtain a subpoena from a judge, county or state prosecutor, or other qualified attorney, once an investigation has begun.  Facebook regularly assists law enforcement in responding to subpoenas by providing information about the creator of the account, including their name, email address, date of birth, and some other account identifiers provided by the user when they signed up. Lawyers can also obtain a subpoena for the purposes of obtaining evidence to be used in a civil case.

With a court order (which can only be issued by a judge), law enforcement officers can get additional information from Facebook, including transactional logs such as intra-session IP addresses.  The IP address is the unique identifier that every online device is given.  With the IP address, law enforcement will be able to determine the Internet Service Provider (ISP).  Again using a court order, the officer will be able to obtain from the ISP the billing address and other subscriber information of the person involved.

If during the course of the investigation the officer determines that criminal charges are appropriate, they may obtain a warrant from a judge for the purpose of collecting even more information from Facebook, including the content of the pages (e.g., photos and comments). A warrant is another court order issued by a judge, but it must be accompanied by probable cause that the information requested is necessary for the purposes of investigating a crime. According to the Stored Communications Act: “A governmental entity may require the disclosure by a provider of electronic communication service of the contents of a wire or electronic communication…only pursuant to a warrant issued using the procedures described in the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure…” So without a warrant, Facebook has no obligation to provide the content of the pages. This is a good thing for those of us who use Facebook and other online environments appropriately and legally: Only when we are implicated in a crime should the content of our profiles be turned over to the government.

The differences described above between what information can be obtained through a request, a subpoena, a court order, or a warrant is determined somewhat by the company (Facebook in this case) but mostly by federal and state law. It largely depends on whether the information requested is the property of the company, the Internet Service Provider, or the customer. Technically, everything you post on Facebook is your property, though you give Facebook permission to use that information for certain purposes as a condition of using the site.

Some states include electronic communications in their impersonation or identity theft laws.  For example, it is a class A misdemeanor in New York if someone “Impersonates  another  by communication  by  Internet  website  or electronic  means  with  intent to obtain a benefit or injure or defraud another, or by such communication pretends to be  a  public  servant  in order to  induce another to submit to such authority or act in reliance on such pretense.” Consult with law enforcement or a local attorney to learn more about the specific laws in your state.

In many cases, however, fake profiles are created for a laugh and the persons responsible perhaps do not fully understand the consequences of their behavior.  This is especially true in incidents involving adolescents.  So if there is no clear threat or other evidence of criminal behavior, resist contacting the police and try to work through the problem informally, involving parents, schools, and other adults as appropriate.

That said, there have been many incidents where students have created profiles about educators or their classmates that have ended up in court.  Try to avoid this by proactively educating your children and students about these issues, and by creating a positive climate at school.  In that way, hopefully they will not participate in these behaviors and if someone else does create a fake profile about them, they will know what to do and will feel comfortable turning to an adult for help.

Cyberbullying Laws and School Policy: A Blessing or Curse?

Posted by Justin W. Patchin on September 28, 2010

Many schools are now in a difficult position of having to respond to a mandate to have a cyberbullying policy, without much guidance from the state about the circumstances under which they can (or must) respond.  When folks ask me if I think there needs to be a “cyberbullying law” I basically respond by saying “perhaps – but not the kind of law most legislators would propose.”  I would look for a law to be more “prescriptive” than “proscriptive.”  By that, I mean I would like to see specific guidance from states about *how* and *when* schools can take action in cyberbullying incidents.  Many states have taken the easy way out by simply passing laws saying effectively “schools need to deal with this.”  Not only have they stopped short in terms of providing specific instructions or even a framework from which schools can evaluate their role, but they have not provided any additional resources to address these issues.  Some states are now requiring schools to educate students and staff about cyberbullying or online safety more generally, but have provided no funding to carry out such activities.  Unfunded mandates have become cliché in education, and this is just another example.

Moreover, school administrators are in a precarious position because they see many examples in the media where schools have been sued because they took action against a student when they shouldn’t have or they failed to take action when they were supposed to.  Schools need help determining where the legal line is.

Many states already have existing criminal and civil remedies to deal with cyberbullying.  Extreme cases would fall under criminal harassment or stalking laws or a target could pursue civil action for intentional infliction of emotional distress or defamation, to name a few.  Bullying (whatever the form) that occurs at school is no doubt already subject to an existing bullying policy.  To be sure, schools should bring their bullying and harassment policies into the 21st Century by explicitly identifying cyberbullying as a proscribed behavior, but they need to move beyond the behaviors that occur on school grounds or those that utilize school-owned resources.  But in order to do this they need guidance from their state legislators and Departments of Education so that they draft a policy and procedure that will be held up in court.  School, technology, and privacy lawyers disagree about what should (or must) be in a policy.  It’s no wonder many educators are simply throwing their hands up.

We really like New Hampshire’s recently passed bullying law, even though like other efforts it demands a lot from schools without a corresponding increase in resources.  This section is key:

“Bullying or cyberbullying shall occur when an action or communication as defined in RSA 193-F:3: … (b) Occurs off of school property or outside of a school-sponsored activity or event, if the conduct interferes with a pupil’s educational opportunities or substantially disrupts the orderly operations of the school or school-sponsored activity or event.”

This puts schools, students, and parents on notice that there are instances when schools can discipline students for their off campus behavior.  It will take many years, though, before we will know if this law can be used as a model.  Schools will need to pass policies based on the law; a school will then need to discipline a bully based on the new policy; then they will need to be sued; then the case will need to be appealed.  Perhaps then the case will get to a significant enough court that it will matter.  Hang on and see how it turns out.  In the meantime, lobby your legislators to pass meaningful, prescriptive laws instead of laws that simply say “cyberbullying is wrong, now YOU do SOMETHING about it.”  It’s election time, so I’m sure your local representative will be all ears…

New Report: “Youth Safety on a Living Internet”

Posted by Justin W. Patchin on June 5, 2010

The Online Safety and Technical Working Group just released their comprehensive report “Youth Safety on a Living Internet” detailing the current state of knowledge, practice, and tools regarding safeguarding our youth while they explore technology.  The Report focused primarily on identifying industry efforts to promote online safety through education, technology, content, and other measures.  In short, the Report recognized some promising approaches but acknowledged there is much more work to be done.

As the title suggests, the Internet is constantly changing.  This creates particular challenges for adults who are simply trying to keep up.  No matter how the Internet (and technology more broadly) changes, we as adults must also adapt so that we can teach our children the practical rules of the digital road.  And this Report gives us some guidance with respect to how we should proceed.  For example, the authors note: “In focusing so much on blocking new media from school as a protection, schools are failing to do with today’s media what they have long done for students with traditional media – enrich and guide their use” (page 3).  This is an issue many educators are struggling with.  They see the value in technology and can see great potential for its use as a pedagogical tool in and outside of the classroom but are disinclined to risk their job or reputation for the possible negative repercussions.  It’s simply easier to ban technology from the classroom and prohibit teachers from interacting with students online than to develop comprehensive policies and practices to manage its utilization.  Frankly I don’t blame them for being gun-shy about this.  Unfortunately this approach is stunting our ability to move education forward.   One of the many important recommendations from the Subcommittee on Internet Safety Education on page 7 was to “Encourage full, safe use of digital media in schools’ regular instruction and professional development in their use as a high priority for educators nationwide.”

Another important insight identified in the report is that it will take a multi-disciplinary and varied effort to accomplish our goal of educating teens about online safety and responsibility.  Indeed, the Working Group was comprised of folks from across the spectrum (industry, academia, government, the media, and elsewhere).  Moreover, the group was quick to acknowledge that there is no magic pill or piece of software or school curriculum that by itself will appease our concerns or fully protect our kids while online. “There’s no one-size-fits-all, once-and-for-all solution to providing children with every aspect of online child safety. Rather, it takes a comprehensive ‘toolbox’ from which parents, educators, and other safety providers can choose tools appropriate to children’s developmental stages and life circumstances, as they grow” (page 5).  Our children, like the technology they use, are constantly changing and as parents and those who regularly work with youth, we have a responsibility to evolve with both.

Over the next couple of weeks, Sameer and I will continue to break down the Report and discuss specific issues that are relevant to our efforts at the Cyberbullying Research Center.  We certainly encourage everyone to read the complete report because if you follow this blog, you are not only likely interested in its analysis, recommendations, and conclusions, but are no doubt an important part of the solution moving forward.  As the authors point out, a summary report like this is only a first step.  What is done with the report will be the real test of its significance.  Take a moment to recognize the role you play, as a teacher, administrator, law enforcement officer, researcher, parent, teen, or any of the other numerous pieces of this important puzzle.  What can you do today that will help youth be safer online tomorrow?