Standing Up and Speaking Out Against Cyberbullying
I met Sarah Ball a couple of years ago, as she sat in the front row of a cyberbullying presentation I gave to educators at a national conference held in Orlando. As a teenager, she stood out from the rest of my audience of school professionals. She also stood out in terms of her contagious enthusiasm and interest, which was so evident in our conversation after my talk. Sarah told me of her story, and how she had personally asked the conference organizers if she could attend for free (since she was still in high school!) simply because she cared so much about this issue and wanted to make a meaningful difference. We have kept in touch since then, and we were able to feature some of her personal story in Words Wound: Delete Cyberbullying and Make Kindness Go Viral. I wanted to feature it for our site visitors here as well, since it is inspiring – and because it can serve to motivate other teens and young adults to be powerful instruments of change in their communities!
I’ve had to deal with some really horrible bullying and cyberbullying. But I’ve tried to fight the good fight and to do something about it on a bigger scale, especially because I kept meeting others who were struggling, too. With my mind and heart heavy due to my situation and that of others, I started to research cyberbullying. Ryan Halligan, Megan Meier, Jeffrey Johnston, and more and more names kept coming up. Reading their stories and the decisions they made to end their cyberbullying cut me deeply. I remembered an organization my mom had told me about called DoSomething.org. It’s a place for kids and teens to do something to better the world. I then decided to create Unbreakable, a project to help me heal as well as heal others who were bullied. I didn’t have much of a plan at first—I just knew that I wanted to do whatever I could to end cyberbullying.
Soon, I got more passionate and wanted to tell more people what was happening. I wanted to be a voice for all victims of bullying. I printed out hundreds of pages of websites made just to attack kids. I sent a letter describing myself, my Unbreakable project, stories of suicide, and pages and pages of bullying sites to media outlets, politicians, law enforcement, celebrities, school superintendents, and anyone else I hoped would listen. The Tampa Tribune, ABC News, and Bay News 9 responded. Soon I was on a media train with Unbreakable. I created an Unbreakable Facebook fan page. My page targeted cyberbullies and the creators of the cruel sites. It also told the stories of Ryan, Megan, and Jeffrey.
In the beginning, the page was mostly a surge of congratulations to “whoever this is” speaking out. (Before the media buzz, I didn’t tell people that I was behind Unbreakable.) One student who had previously cyberbullied people posted, “I don’t know who this is but you are an inspiration to me. Thank you for standing up and speaking out.” I think it’s awesome that my project has encouraged others to change their ways, and that Unbreakable got a lot more students to think and care about this important issue.
As a result of these efforts, I have been invited to speak at Bullying Summits, Parent Workshops, School Board Workshops, Kiwanis and Rotary Clubs, universities, and numerous schools. Through these engagements, I met leaders in my community who wanted to help make a major countywide anti-bullying event happen, even though it had never been done before. For six months, we planned, fundraised, and gathered support from the NHL and NBA as well as local businesses and restaurants. And then the day finally came!
The Unbreakable Movement for Peace program was a massive success. It was promoted all week in all the schools in my county, we had numerous guest speakers, free food and drinks for 500 people, and over 35 vendors. The event kicked off with Central High School’s ROTC performing the National Anthem, and then I spoke about this cause and those who have been victimized by cyberbullying. We all then participated in a beautiful balloon release to remember those who chose death as an escape from their bullies.
I continue to remain passionate about cyberbullying, and aim to keep honoring the platform and opportunities that I have been given. I want to help inspire other teens to make great decisions, contribute to the betterment of society, and stand up for what they believe in (and what I believe in!). We can all take the trials we’ve experienced, and turn them into something positive – something that can help the lives of so many others around us. We just need to stay motivated to take our good intentions and turn them into action!
~ Sarah Ball, 19, Florida
Preventing Bullying through Kindness
I’ve been working with Adam Sherman of the To Be Kind movement over the last few years, as he is an award-winning educator here in my home state of Florida (and also worked in the county where I went to school while growing up!). He is passionate about creating positive climates within schools to reduce violence, harassment, and hate, and his enthusiasm is contagious and so refreshing to see. While teaching Leadership classes at school, he spearheaded a curriculum to encourage a peer environment that helps (and not hurts) others, and it has gained significant traction around Florida.
I’ve asked him and a few of his students to share some of their thoughts below. My hope is that it inspires teachers and counselors to identify a cadre on campus that can take this idea and run with it! With the new academic year upon us, I think it is essential to enlist teens to set the right tone early on regarding bullying and cyberbullying. With effort and follow-through, it has the potential to truly transform the school community.
The educator (Adam Sherman):
Kindness is difficult for students. The hard part with kindness is that our collective society has made it easier to be mean. It is easier, and often more comfortable, to laugh at others, to judge them, to talk negatively behind their back, etc. For lack of a better description, hurting others is sometimes a socially acceptable norm. So when students, or anyone for that matter, go out of their way to do/say something with kindness, they are actually looked at in a negative light. It often means they are going against their peers and that opens them up to be hurt negatively. That means students are quick to give up. As an educator, and quite simply as an adult, I have to help show them that they must continue to persevere despite the nay-sayers.
It can be difficult to imagine teaching young people to be kind. After all, when one thinks of bullying, they automatically think of it as a “rite-of-passage” and that all students do it. But for me, it is easy to help them learn a different way through life because I try to look to my own actions first. Just as anyone else, I make mistakes and say things I don’t mean, but I have to set the example for the students. I have to live my life kindly so that they can learn the behavior. We aren’t born to be mean, we learn to be that way.
When it comes to how we divy up the responsibilities of keeping this program moving, the students are tasked with influencing their peers. They take care of the school operations as well as helping me to design the materials we will use. I handle basically everything else. I monitor paperwork, social media (Facebook and Twitter), community involvement, inquiries, expansion, etc. I want the students to focus on their peers.
That is one of the reasons the program has become so successful. While we have created a model, it can be uniquely individualized for each school that takes it on. We have standards that we like to keep up and basic principles for schools to follow, but anyone who is familiar with education knows that every school is different. What one school needs may not be needed elsewhere. So the hope is that a strong group of students, with a strong adult role model, can create a culture of kindness and make school a place that students want to be. And the students certainly do that.
Since our program has begun three years ago, much has changed in physicality. My original students have moved on (except for one who remains on the Board of Directors), I have changed school districts (where of course I have already laid the groundwork to continue TBK), and though we have grown beyond what we ever thought we would, much remains the same. The message of TBK remains so simple, and also drives its growing popularity. Our pledge, “Bullying ends where kindness begins; it begins with me,” is something that people of all ages can easily remember. We can’t change the behaviors of others, but we can certainly control the behaviors of ourselves. If we practice kindness, we will be surrounded by kindness. And when we are faced with negativity, we can either let it get to us, or we can respond to it by being kind. Sometimes that’s all it takes to turn that negative into a positive.
The students (Quinn Solomon, Joshua Sanchez, Danielle Soltren of Lake Brantley High School):
Over the past few years, social media has boomed. But as its popularity grows, so does the ability to mistreat others through the Internet. Often, there’s a feeling of hopelessness when it comes to bullying. Some people assume that it’s a problem that will always exist. We seek to destroy that mentality by showing the power of kindness, both in person and online. We’re optimistic that we can eliminate bullying step-by-step. After a terrifying experience when an online hit list threatened our students and faculty, our Leadership class knew they wanted to make a change.
After a long class discussion, someone suggested using social media as a way to help solve the bullying problem rather than make it worse. We decided to use the already trending idea of “tbh” (to be honest), where users on Facebook can like someone’s status and then receive an honest statement from him or her. Using the same format, we changed the idea to “to be kind.” Users still take part by liking a post on someone’s page. Then the original poster is supposed to give a compliment or write words of kindness on the wall of whoever liked the status. To Be Kind, or TBK, is a simple idea: Treat others as you would wish to be treated. Every one of us possesses the ability to be kind. This simplicity is the answer to preventing bullying.
The impact on our school was instantaneous. TBK turned into a buzz overnight. The very next day after we launched our idea, students were talking and trying to figure out what TBK was and where it came from. Using follow-up actions such as putting positive messages in lockers, we quickly turned it into a movement that lots of people wanted to be part of.
Like many new things, our idea hasn’t always been met with positivity. Many of the kind posts that students make on social media are rejected. Many people aren’t used to kindness anymore. We’re used to ridicule rather than compliments. So sometimes people post negativity in response. When that happens, we just thank them for expressing their feelings, or we ignore the comment. The purpose of TBK isn’t to instigate fighting or rumors, or to provide an outlet for people to criticize others. Its purpose is to show that social media and other everyday interactions can be improved with a few thoughtful words. Anyone, of any age, can spread a few extra smiles in a day. And TBK isn’t focused solely on students. We encourage parents and community members to get involved and to support our project at work and at home. We’ve also included the school faculty and staff by sharing words of kindness with them.
We take huge pride in TBK. It has grown into a symbol of anti-bullying not only at our school, but in many schools around our district, country, and beyond. For example, our school participates in a German exchange program. We’ve helped our partner school establish a TBK program, as well. The world wants kindness. People want to be treated as if they matter. That’s the ultimate purpose of the program. We know that kindness will continue to spread and bullying will continue to diminish. Remember: Bullying ends where kindness begins, and it begins with you.
Revenge Porn and the Purge trend on Instagram and Twitter
Since last weekend, our site has received a lot of reports from both victims and other concerned social media users about the #purge phenomenon that has gone viral. For those of you unfamiliar, The Purge was a movie that came out in 2013. The storyline featured the premise of all crime being legal for one night of the year. The sequel – The Purge: Anarchy – just came out and has seemingly served as the impetus for some users on Twitter and Instagram (and perhaps other platforms) to (sort of) replicate the storyline. How, you might ask? Well, for a twelve hour period, people are posting and saying whatever they want, and including a hashtag consisting of some variation of “purge” in it (for example, #twitterpurge, #instapurge, #purgenight). Apart from individuals mouthing off in malicious, cruel, and offensive ways (typically against others), the most troubling subset of participants are posting nude pictures of ex-girlfriends and others they wish to humiliate and demean (including those who are underage). This has in the past been termed “revenge porn,” as the motivation is often the desire to get back at someone else. You can imagine the emotional state of someone who has been victimized: they are crying out for help as their privacy and trust has been violated in the most extreme way, and don’t know how to make the continual harassment and cruelty stop.
Thankfully, many are speaking out and labeling the #purge phenomenon as immature and ignorant, and pointing out that these accounts ruin lives and could push people to suicide. We’ve also seen anti-purge hashtags surface like #purgenightmuststop or #purgenightnomore, in an attempt to spread the message that this entire idea is horrible, ridiculous, and must end. Finally, I am happy to report that Twitter and Instagram (which is owned by Facebook) have been actively taking down offending accounts in these situations once we let them know of them. The only issue has been combating the copycat accounts which have quickly replaced the ones that were deleted. To be sure, these newer accounts are not really getting as many followers and participation as the originals, and so the hope is that we have reached the tipping point of this particular phenomenon – and its end has begun.
We have written about revenge porn in the past, and unfortunately this is just another instantiation which has gained some traction. The hope is that the speed with which it became a “thing” will be matched by the speed with which it is denounced and quelled. A number of states have specific laws that criminalize this behavior in some capacity: Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Georgia, Maryland, New Jersey, Idaho, Pennsylvania, Utah, Virginia, and Wisconsin. And more than two dozen are considering legislation. Also, there is a federal proposal being floated in DC called the Relationship Privacy Protection Act, which would make it a misdemeanor to intentionally distribute sexually explicit images or video “with the intent to cause serious emotional distress.” This would be punishable by up to a year in prison and a $2,500 fine – and third parties who knowingly engage in it could face felony charges and a five-year prison sentences with fines of up to $12,500. The concern, though, is that punitive laws will be passed without thoroughly thinking about a number of issues. Eric Goldman brings up a number of valid points as it relates to California’s law: How do you measure intent of causing emotional distress when one distributes the images? What if the recipient of the inappropriate image never agreed it should be completely kept in confidence? What about the role of third parties – those who forward or provide external links to the image? What about hackers (instead of current or former romantic partners) who access and distribute images? These complex questions require great consideration before moving forward legislatively.
I know that this is a sensitive and emotionally-laden topic, and affects those who are involved on a visceral level. And as much as I would like to write a scathing diatribe that indicts those who participate in the #purge and other trends that cause pain and embarrassment to others, I know that won’t really solve anything. The bottom line is that while there will always be a minority of social media (or other technology) users who marshal its power in negative ways. And while those who try to get back at their exes or at others by posting private shared with them in confidence are completely in the wrong, we have to be honest with ourselves and remember that these situations can avoided if consider all possible long-term implications before putting ourselves out there.
Part of me wants to shout from the rooftops that you can’t truly trust anyone anymore, and so please don’t ever take and then send risqué pictures or videos – even using “ephemeral messaging” like Snapchat (or the new messaging features due out in iOS 8), even to someone to whom you are married or have been with for a very long time. And you’d think that all of us would have learned from the sexting horror stories we’ve heard before (including those which have tragically resulted in suicide). But perhaps those lessons don’t sink in deep enough, or we just believe that it’s just a casual, fun, and exciting way to flirt, or we’re so in love and nothing bad will ever happen, or that the other person would never dare to screw us over. Or we just don’t imagine something like the #purge could possibly ever spring up, let alone happen to us. All of these rationalizations are natural. And of course, I want to be gracious to everyone, because we’ve all been in vulnerable positions and we’ve all made mistakes we regret.
The premise of the Purge movies and now this #purge trend on social media is that you are free to do whatever you want, and that there are no consequences. But that is Hollywood, and not real life. The reality is that there are always consequences (of some kind, even if not immediately obvious), and though we can’t often control what someone does with a compromising image of us, we can often control the creation of that image. And by controlling the creation of that image (by never taking it or allowing it to be taken!), we preempt the problem before it can even possibly happen.
Parenting Kids Today to Prevent Adult Bullying Tomorrow: Lessons from the Miami Dolphins bullying case
The independent investigation report into the Miami Dolphins’ bullying scandal was released today. I blogged about this story a couple of times last November because it really hit me deeply, because we care so much about the bullying problem, and because I’ve published a few academic articles on workplace harassment. I have previously discussed in detail the implications for society stemming from the situation, and also how the relevant institutions may have contributed to the problem.
The new report is pretty eye-opening. Here are the take-home points:
“The Report concludes that three starters on the Dolphins offensive line, Richie Incognito, John Jerry and Mike Pouncey, engaged in a pattern of harassment directed at not only Jonathan Martin, but also another young Dolphins offensive lineman and an assistant trainer. The Report finds that the assistant trainer repeatedly was the object of racial slurs and other racially derogatory language; that the other offensive lineman was subjected to homophobic name-calling and improper physical touching; and that Martin was taunted on a persistent basis with sexually explicit remarks about his sister and his mother and at times ridiculed with racial insults and other offensive comments.”
“The Report rejects any suggestion that Martin manufactured claims of abuse after the fact to cover up an impetuous decision to leave the team. Contemporaneous text messages that Martin sent to his parents and others months before he left the Dolphins—which have never before been made public—corroborate his account that the persistent harassment by his teammates caused him significant emotional distress. The Report concludes that the harassment by Martin’s teammates was a contributing factor in his decision to leave the team, but also finds that Martin’s teammates did not intend to drive Martin from the team or cause him lasting emotional injury.”
The report concludes with a call to action, asking the NFL to create new conduct guidelines to promote peer respect in that unique workplace environment. I am sure there is more that will still come out, but it seems like Jonathan Martin may have cause to file a harassment lawsuit against the Dolphins. And, more importantly, we have victimization that took place, and continued extensive fallout and negative press for the organization and the NFL.
Okay – how is this relevant to our focus on teens? All of this has inspired me to really try to think through the issues. One thing I’ve honed in on is why some children grow up to be bullies, and why some grow up to be bullied. Perhaps those victimized deal with it during adolescence and then continue to face it during adulthood, without ever really learning what to do in these situations, and without ever receiving the help and guidance they might need. Perhaps children on the receiving end turn into adults who dish it out later in life, once again because they weren’t shown or taught how to cope and respond. And perhaps mean kids just become mean grownups, and stay that way no matter what because they too never got what they needed to change.
We never really know all of the facts (in this case, or in any bullying case), and the situations tend to be complex and laden with emotion. We also know that there are no cure-alls – parents can only do so much, and then have to let go and have faith that things will work out. But if you are a parent, and don’t want your child or teen to eventually behave similarly to Richie Incognito as an adult, you should:
Remain calm. Nothing is going to work if you try to tackle this while internally or externally freaking out.
Cultivate empathy. Get them to understand that words wound, and if they don’t have something nice to say, they really (and frankly) should keep their mouth shut.
Identify their “sore spot” – where they are especially sensitive. Discuss with them how they would feel if someone made fun of them for that personally sensitive issue.
Help them to appreciate all differences (race, religion, sexual orientation, appearance, dress, personality, etc.) and never use them as a reason to exclude, reject, or embarrass another person.
Teach them that their way to be or act is not necessarily the right way. There often is no right way. People should be allowed to be people. People should be allowed to be who they are, whatever that is.
What may be a joke to them may actually be a cruel and hateful act to another. Everyone is wired differently; some can shrug off things easily, while others internalize them. This does not make them soft or weak. Personal traits perceived as a positive may be a negative in some situations, and vice versa.
Determine if they are dealing with any personal struggles which might be manifesting in harmful actions towards others.
The “birds of a feather” adage is typically true. Figure out if those with whom they hang out encourage or condone meanness and cruelty. Counter those messages as best as you can, with the help of others they look up to.
If you are a parent, and don’t want your child or teen to eventually behave similarly to Jonathan Martin as an adult, you should:
Remain calm. If you come to them all riled up and panicky, you’re not going to get through to them.
Teach them to never allow others to disrespect them or tear them down. They don’t have to subject themselves to that, even if it’s done in the name of “hazing” or forming a brotherhood or sisterhood.
Help them learn conflict resolution skills, as they may help diffuse small problems before they blow up.
Make sure they have multiple people they can always go to for help – someone who will definitely be their advocate and do everything possible to help them. Identify those individuals, and make sure they “check in” regularly to ensure your child or teen is doing okay.
Continually remain keyed in to their emotional and psychological health to detect warning signs that might point to struggles and issues that could benefit from professional help (counseling, etc.).
Be their biggest fan no matter what, and surround them with others who will pour into them and keep them encouraged in the midst of difficult life situations.
Immerse them in environments (inside or outside of school) among kids of character, where everyone stands up for each other and has each other’s backs.
These strategies won’t keep every kid from relational problems now or when they are grown up, but it will help them. Ideally, it will make them more emotionally healthy individuals who are less likely to be a jerk to others, who understand how they should and should not deal with conflict, and how to lean on others early on for support and assistance before situations get irreparably bad. The bottom line is that we have to be involved, and exercise due diligence now to prevent problems in the future. When you’re dealing with the messy fallout, you end up kicking yourself for not doing all you could to prevent it back when you had the chance. So start now – it’s totally worth it.
Photo illustration by Lisa Larson-Walker. Photos by Getty.
Unplug for a While!
Many of us have become so dependent on technology, we don’t know what to do with ourselves without our favorite devices. It’s almost sad (for me, at least) to consider how we don’t know what to do with ourselves if we can’t take out our phone at any moment to check our Instagram feed, or Twitter followers, or Facebook notifications. And how we really need people to be reaching out to us and so we are constantly texting and Snapchatting to keep from feeling alone. And how all of this has become deeply tied into our emotional and psychological well-being – how we feel about ourselves and our worth and our importance to others.
Some are realizing that this dependence on nonstop online connectivity may be unhealthy for them, and may be compromising certain areas of their lives – such as their ability to study and focus on a singular task for a long period of time (instead of constantly multitasking), or their ability to convey our thoughts eloquently in our writings and essays, or the quality of our real-world friendships and relationships which often need more than quick 140-character messages to develop and deepen and thrive. And maybe this dependence on technology makes them more likely to respond spontaneously and emotionally to something that happens in their lives – which can lead to problem behaviors online like cyberbullying.
So, to prove a point, some people are making the choice to unplug for a while – just to see what life could be like. We are sure you know of some of your friends or peers who have deactivated Facebook for a week or a month (or longer!) because they were sick of reading about other people’s lives instead of actually and fully living their own. We’ve heard of others who are deleting SnapChat for a season it has become a tremendous time-suck for them. We like hearing stories like this, not because social media is bad but because acting and interacting in the real world is better!
Maybe you could give up your favorite social networking app for some time. Maybe you could turn your phone to Airplane mode for a few hours every day, just to allow yourself a clear mind. And maybe you could take notes and see how your life is different, and then share what you learned with the rest of your school, either in person or over the announcements, or in the school newspaper, or through any other medium.
Maybe you’ll say it was really, really hard to feel connected to others without your phone. But maybe you’ll say it freed you up to be more present and involved with your younger brother or sister, or girlfriend, or husband, or parents – which led to a better situation at home. Maybe you’ll say it allowed you to finish a class paper or a work project in a lot shorter time than usual simply because you didn’t have any distractions. Maybe you’ll say it freed you up to do something you’ve really been meaning to do but never found the time! Maybe you’ll say that it allowed you to reevaluate why you post the things that you post, and how you realize that many of us do a lot of things online to get others to like us and want to know us more. Maybe you’ll say that it kept you from getting caught up in a bunch of nonsense and drama that people are talking about but really doesn’t matter at all. The goal is to mix it up a little, and challenge the status quo – especially in your own life. And hopefully it’ll encourage others to do the same! Let us know of your successes and struggles with this if you decide to tackle it – we want to hear from you!