Setting up a Free Bullying and Cyberbullying Reporting System with Google Voice
I have written in the past on anonymous reporting systems in schools, and I strongly advocate for them whenever I have the opportunity to speak to educators on how they should prevent cyberbullying. Based on your own observations, I am sure you’d agree with me that youth are way more comfortable texting/typing – especially when it relates to giving emotionally-laden statements or sharing stories of a sensitive or delicate nature to an adult (such as a teacher, counselor, or administrator). Not only do these systems cater to the preferred method of communication for kids, they also offer confidentiality to the person providing the report. Furthermore, they help to empower youth to be agents of change and step up for themselves or for others who are being victimized. Finally, they allow for real-time reporting, can alert you to minor situations before they become major, and can provide a tangible “paper trail” of documentation for each and every issue that is made known.
Before I continue, I want to make a very important point. Schools sometimes are hesitant to set up these systems because they are concerned about false positives. They assume that students are just going to screw around with the system and make all sorts of ridiculous, juvenile reports and waste everyone’s time. They even wonder if some students will attempt to bully others by reporting them as an aggressor. Those are legitimate possibilities, but they are largely unfounded. Every school we have worked with that has implemented these systems has said that yes, they might receive a few insincere reports a year, but the vast majority are legitimate and provide extremely helpful information to consider. The bottom line is that using these systems allow students to be the eyes and ears out there in the school community to keep educators in the loop about issues they really must know. And getting in front of these issues – or incendiary sparks, if you will pardon the metaphor – can definitely keep them from flaring up into a blazing inferno of sorts.
Second, whenever I spend time with youth at schools, I am reminded that they honestly do want to speak up. They do. The problem is, they just don’t know how to do so safely and in a way that feels comfortable for them. And, they are concerned about the possible fallout from doing so (being found out, labeled a tattletale, targeted with retaliation). It is up to schools, then, to create and provide safe mechanisms for reporting, and to have policies and procedures in place to reduce as much as possible the potential for that fallout.
There are a number of commercial services to which school districts can subscribe that provide this functionality. Some are fantastic, well-developed, and even provide more advanced features – and therefore are worth checking out. However, since many school districts cannot afford to subscribe to a commercial service, or may want a solution with a smaller footprint, I wanted to share how they might provide a similar tool to their school community through Google Voice at no cost. I believe it does a great job of what we would want it to do: to field private reports from the student body to alert the school about situations they should investigate.
How it Works
The system is built around a main phone number created through a new Google Voice account and then shared with the entire student body as a tipline or report-line. The system then disseminates the student voicemails (rare) and texts (frequent) to school personnel such as the assistant principal, the counselor, or the school police officer for investigation and follow-up. Voicemails can be sent as a sound file or even transcribed into text, and then emailed to a specified address. Texts can be forwarded to a specific email (or multiple emails) as well.
All point people (administrators, law enforcement, etc.) who want to access the tip line will have to download the Google Voice App to their phone or tablet (Android or iOS devices). Once the app is downloaded, they must configure it congruent with the settings of the how the Google Voice tipline was set up (e.g., input the same login and password used to create the tipline in the first place). Once the app is set up, that point person can respond to texts and calls from tipsters from within the app, and only the tipline number will be displayed on outgoing texts (as opposed to the point person’s actual phone number). This is critical, because it maintains the confidentiality and privacy of the administrators and law enforcement who respond to tips from their personal devices.
Who Responds to Tips?
Typically, each school should assign a point person to deal with the reports as they come in. Specific responses can be based on offense seriousness; most are addressable by intervention from an administrator or counselor. However, if the matter is more serious (e.g., involves threats, sexually-explicit pictures of minors, coercion or blackmail, or viable evidence of other criminal activity) the school police officer or local law enforcement department should be notified to intercede.
What Should Be Reported?
In discussing the reporting system with students, it should be stressed that no issue is too small. We want students to use them extensively and to let the school know if there is anything amiss that should be investigated. Of course, schools should clearly convey that that actual emergencies should be reported to the police via 911 or another method. While the purpose here is to encourage its use when bullying or cyberbullying is involved, schools should welcome kids keeping them in the loop whenever they notice, witness, or otherwise become aware of:
- Abuse at home (or elsewhere)
- Concerns about a fellow student (self-harm, suicidal ideation, etc.)
- Criminal activity (drugs, extortion, theft, vandalism, rape, etc.)
- General threats to campus safety or the campus environment
Is the System Truly Anonymous?
In a word, no. Anyone who calls or texts the tipline will have their phone number recorded. Typically, though, if the tipster does not want to reveal their identity, it is difficult to know who is behind the tip because the school doesn’t readily have a database of student cell phone numbers to cross-reference (schools typically only have a database of the parent/guardian contact information on file for each student). Googling the phone number also rarely reveals any identifying information unless the student has posted his or her cell phone across the Web and publicly-accessible social media pages. As such, there is definitely a strong measure of privacy in the system.
Other points to remember
- When responding to students tips via text, be sure to sign your name. Remember, they will not be able to see your actual phone number but instead will see the phone number of the tipline.
- The school, when responding, should always thank the tipster for the information, commend them for caring about the safety of their community, and remind him or her that it will be kept confidential.
- Because of FERPA rules, schools should not voluntarily disclose information about certain students in their text interactions with the tipster (e.g., names, personal histories, etc.).
- Always keep all interactions formal and professional, as they may serve as documentation in a case file or even court proceedings in the future. A school’s point person should never be casual in their texts through this system, even though it is a medium with which we all are extremely comfortable.
- There can also be follow-up dialogue via text in this process, as the school may request more information from the tipster or the tipster desire to share more information with the school.
- Students should be reminded that the system should not be abused. They should know this anyway, but sometimes it still needs to be articulated.
In sum, we strongly believe that every school should have a system in place that allows students who experience or observe bullying or cyberbullying (or any inappropriate behavior) to report it in as confidential a manner as possible. It seems obvious that we should be using mediums that youth already prefer. In addition, being able to broach the subject without being forced to reveal one’s identity or do it face-to-face may prove valuable in alerting faculty and staff to harmful student experiences, and help promote an informed response to bring positive change. Just make sure that students know about the system (use posters, messaging strategies, and other creative ways to get it out there!) and try to overcome any qualms they might have about using it.
Finally, please remember that if you decide to provide such a resource to your school community, every complaint should be taken seriously and thoroughly investigated. Since the use of this system does provide the paper trail I talked about earlier, it’s best to make sure you’ve done your due diligence with all reports to avoid any claims of liability or negligence. If the school responds promptly, and if it is a good experience for the student providing the tip, he or she will let other students know – and the system will be used more. Even better, the student body will be reminded that the school truly cares about them and is implementing progressive measures to make that clear.
Here is our step-by-step guide in PDF format to walk educators through the process of setting up a Bullying and Cyberbullying Reporting System with Google Voice.
What the Best Bullying and Cyberbullying Assembly Speakers Do
Last week I shared what I feel are the most important considerations for schools planning to host bullying assembly programs. This week, I wanted to focus on speakers themselves. As you may know from your own experiences, there are fantastic ones out there, but there are also many who leave a lot to be desired. Justin and I regularly do assemblies all across the United States (and occasionally abroad), and truly enjoy visiting and working with students, staff, and parents in this capacity. However, we simply cannot do them for everyone, as much as we would love to. As such, here are my thoughts on what the best bullying and cyberbullying assembly speakers do.
Speakers need to be relatable.
You may have heard that you win or lose your audience in the first few minutes of your talk. That is a short amount of time, and a lot of pressure to grab and hold their attention. Relatable speakers will deeply connect with the audience by demonstrating complete familiarity of, and appreciation with, the offline and online world of teens (but not in a way that seems contrived or fake). In addition, they must immediately engage students – not with scare tactics – but by clarifying at the onset why what they have to say matters to the students’ very lives. And how their message is different than all of the other anti-bullying messages the students have heard before. And that ultimately, the speaker is on their side. This is usually conveyed differently for elementary, middle, and high schoolers, and is a critically important skill to master. If the presentation somehow betrays that the speaker (and, by extension, the school) just doesn’t “get” kids and teens these days, and doesn’t really understand fully what is going on, its impact will be greatly stunted.
Speakers need to be uplifting.
The overall message, on its whole, should be hopeful and empowering. No one wants to be completely bummed out and depressed after listening to a speaker. That totally and completely drains away the audience’s desire and motivation to try and make a difference. Yes, kids need to understand the weight of pain, regret, and potential consequences that surround bullying and cyberbullying, but they cannot flourish and meaningfully contribute to a better peer and school environment under that burden. No one can. And no one will want to. Speakers must make sure the presentation is balanced, and leaves students feeling fired up and equipped to foster change.
Speakers need to focus on the positive.
Many adults are keen to focus on teen conflict, drama, harassment, and hate, and share those stories in an attempt to motivate youth to do the opposite instead. But we’ve found that those good intentions don’t lead to the desired effect. Instead, it can come across as condescending and preachy. Being subjected to those stories makes teens feel that adults expect the worst of them, and that they need to be managed and controlled instead of trusted and empowered. Justin and I strongly believe that speakers must point out all of the good that teens are doing as they embrace social media and electronic communications, instead of emphasizing all of the ways in which students have screwed up. Speakers should try to inspire them by showing them examples of teens just like them who are making a difference by standing up for what’s right. There are an increasing number of sites sharing meaningful stories of teens (and adults) doing kind things! Check out our Words Wound movement, Huffington Post’s Good News, Upworthy, One Good Thing, or A Platform for Good for ideas. Ideally, seeds will be planted in some of the youth. Then, they hopefully will be motivated to replicate the ideas discussed, or come up with their own (specific to their skills and situations) and work to contribute to widespread change on their campus.
Speakers need to have great content.
The data, stories, and examples they share must align with and reflect what the students have been observing and experiencing on their own, or else their message will be discredited and dismissed as irrelevant. The presentation should be interactive, fun, solemn at times (I mean, we are ultimately discussing a pretty serious topic here!), memorable, smooth, and somehow unique. It should also be updated with the latest research (when appropriate, don’t bore them with bar charts!), trends, headlines, stories, and screenshots. Many speakers want to do this, but honestly never really get around to updating their presentations. This will not win over the audience, and keep them locked in to what is being shared. Speakers should remember that students have heard this message before, and their default reaction will be to tune out because of the way this topic has been browbeaten into them. This is why content is – and always will be – king.
Speakers should include solutions.
Students want to know who they can trust and confide in if they are being mistreated. They want to know how to really, truly get someone to stop being mean, and how to anonymously report problems, and how to block mean people on specific networks or apps. They want clear direction as to how to intervene so that it doesn’t backfire on them, and how best to help others in a way that is safe for them as well. They need clear, specific strategies that are age-appropriate and will actually work. At the same time, schools need to know that a good number of presentations are high on inciting emotional responses but low on solutions. Just make sure you identify your goals at the outset, so you are not left feeling like something was missing after the presentation(s).
Speakers should have a plan for follow-up.
They should have books, materials, activities, resources – something they can distribute to the school so that faculty and staff can debrief with the kids and thereby continue the conversation after the assembly (and, ideally, on a regular basis throughout the year). And the resources should clearly mirror the messages conveyed in the assembly, so that everything builds upon itself. If the speaker doesn’t have content to share, he or she should be able to recommend the best out there. This simply demonstrates that they know the proverbial lay of the land, and have taken the time to figure out what can help the school on a long-term basis with their bullying prevention goals.
Ultimately, a great speaker with great content makes for a great presentation. I know that sounds intuitive, which is why I wanted to drill down into the essential components to show individuals what matters the most. I hope the preceding helps those of you who are out there on the front lines, working hard to raise awareness on this incredibly important issue. If we are spending our lives (and the time, attention, and resources of schools) trying to communicate a truly transformative message, we must give it our best – and do it right.
Bullying Assembly Programs – What Schools Need to Know
Schools have been organizing assemblies to address bullying, substance abuse, and a variety of other student issues for as long as I can remember. I definitely remember sitting through them during middle school in particular, and – unfortunately – tuning out because I just didn’t feel like I could connect with the speaker. When it came to the assemblies about bullying, I thought to myself, “yes, we all realize that it’s wrong to be mean to others, but nothing really is going to change at my school, and so why even bother?” I admit that was quite a defeatist mentality, but I’ll blame it in large part on my disillusioned, angst-ridden adolescent self.
That said, I also remember a couple of more inspirational speakers who gave presentations at my schools – and while they weren’t at all about bullying, I did find them compelling, hopeful, motivating, and even instructive. And I didn’t feel like I was being preached or lectured to. That showed me I could be reached – it just really seemed to depend on the quality of the content, the tone of the message, the level at which I was spoken to, and the relatability of what was conveyed. The bottom line is that there is value in assembly programs, but their selection and implementation requires significant consideration and forethought.
The Assembly as a Bullying Solution
Since schools know that bullying and cyberbullying is a problem on their campus and want to do something about it, scheduling an assembly is often the very first idea that comes to their mind. It makes sense, because they seem to be an easy-to-implement solution. Typically, a school has a budget, they find a speaker (or just have one of their staff members do it), they schedule the day and time, and they bring that person in to do his/her thing in the auditorium, gymnasium, or cafeteria. This takes a lot less time and effort than all that is actually needed to make a true difference. But at least it is something.
To be sure, there are a ton of options available for schools in this space. Just do a Google search for “bullying assembly” or “cyberbullying assembly,” and you’ll find pages and pages of people, many of whom are self-described “experts” (perhaps they are, I have no idea). Many educators also receive unsolicited emails from speakers, encouraging them to check out their web sites and skillsets, and consider hiring them to talk to their students. The speakers’ web sites describe what makes their particular talks engaging, interactive, and motivating, and most provide testimonials highlighting the benefit the assemblies provided to the school and attendant students. All of this is good. Really good. There is definitely a need to reach kids with a gripping and powerful message that cultivates empathy, induces intentional kindness and respect towards one’s peers, and equips them to know exactly what to do if they – or someone they know – is being targeted. And there is definitely a need for many speakers to be out there doing their part to help. However, there are three points which we want to make to help inform your implementation:
1. Assemblies must be used as a single piece of a much broader effort.
While a bullying assembly does have some value, we cannot emphasize strongly enough that a “one and done” strategy will fall short and ring painfully hollow in time – even if it is the most heart-rending or entertaining or memorable or impressive or convicting talk your youth have ever heard in their entire lives. Students need more. Bullying prevention initiatives in schools can have assemblies as part of their programming, but according to the research need more substantive characteristics such as information sent home to parents, requests for parents to attend meetings (so as to get them on board to help educators with the message), instructive role-playing scenarios in the classroom, and efforts that lasted more than one day. Schools need more than a flash-in-the-pan event, even if it is really good. The speaker’s efforts can have great value as a launching pad from which other initiatives can take off. These can include a comprehensive anti-bullying curriculum, peer-to-peer programming, specifically training faculty/staff on how to teach digital civility and how to handle problems that arise, modules on socio-emotional learning, stress management, and conflict resolution, social norming, and building a positive school climate.
2. Consider the impact of the specific content
A school’s good intentions to impact, influence, and inspire their student body may backfire if the speaker or organization is not carefully vetted, and if the message is not carefully designed – with every word measured and every aspect planned and prepped for. For example, in just the last six months one school district has had significant reputational fallout in the community because they brought in a speaker whose interactive exercises may have contributed to excessive vulnerability (and even emotional and psychological pain) by students, and consequently further targeting by bullies, and at least one school district has been sued for indirectly contributing to a teen suicide by hiring a speaker who gave a presentation that may have planted ideas of self-harm as a viable option out of the pain one is experiencing.
3. Take the time to find a great speaker to optimize chances for success
Schools interested in bringing out speakers to conduct student assemblies must demonstrate due diligence and do their background research. This is one of the primary ways to find out if they actually are relatable and uplifting, and if they actually have great content that focuses on the positive, provides real solutions, and can lead to specific follow-up by the school. We suggest that educators reach out to colleagues at other schools for specific recommendations. Feel free to even cold call those you don’t know but who work at schools similar to your own. Feel free to review testimonials, but also know that a speaker’s testimonials may not paint a full picture. As such, we also recommend that you take the time to schedule a call with potential speakers so you can get to know their style, passion, convictions, content areas, and exactly how they will connect with your students.
My next blog will detail what I believe the best bullying and cyberbullying assembly speakers do, in order to illuminate what makes a great quality presentation to youth. In addition, Justin and I would love to hear your own thoughts, observations, and experiences in this area, and so feel free to weigh in!
Student Advisory Boards Can Inform Bullying Policies and Prevention
Whenever I visit schools to give a cyberbullying assembly or presentation to parents in the community, I am also typically asked to sit down and chat with the administrators about the policies and programs they have in place. Here, they let me know what they have been doing to identify, address, and prevent teen technology misuse, and then detail some of the struggles that they have faced – like how to talk about sexting without sounding irrelevant, how to develop penalties for rule-breaking that can be consistently enforced and supported by all, and how to strategically encourage kindness and peer respect in a compelling way. Apart from sharing with them evolving best practices, I also encourage them to invite students to the table when determining what can and should be done.
Students should always feel that they have a voice at school. This means that their input on school activities, curriculum, teaching styles, field trips, behavioral issues on campus, and other matters is valued and taken into consideration. I strongly believe that the relevant decision makers at each school should regularly meet with student leaders or even consider convening a “Student Advisory Board” comprised of teens who want to get involved in the governance of their school. In this setting, administrators should solicit and take student perspectives into account when figuring out strategies and solutions, and to continually welcome their thoughts and input on these matters.
Students know — better than anyone else — what devices, programs, or sites are being embraced and exploited by their peer group. They can clue you in to the latest popular social media apps that have gained a lot of traction on campus, the newest interactive software being exploited, and the hottest technology tools (along with all of their capabilities). Students can then inform adults about some of the problems they have seen online among their friends – such as cyberbullying, sexting, anonymous threats, and major digital reputation issues. It is crucial to create a non-judgmental and safe environment in which you regularly invite both older and younger student leaders to candidly provide feedback on the tech-related misbehaviors they see and hear about (or even participate in).
Get their “insider” perspective. You will then be better able to determine the comprehensiveness of your policy, its deterrent value among students (if any), how consistently it is enforced, and whether it is respected. Since the majority of students use technology safely and responsibly – and are often afforded certain device privileges on campus – they wouldn’t want that access taken away from them. Therefore, it is in their best interest to help adults in identifying problem areas and getting them resolved so that the misbehavior of one or two students doesn’t ruin it for everyone else.
As an added benefit, students who are involved in reviewing the bullying policies cannot say that they “didn’t know” that what they were doing was wrong, and using students to help define the behaviors (and even possible penalties for breaking the rules) will ensure that the policies are up to date and applicable to contemporary concerns. Plus, if students are a part of policy development, they have a stake in the policies’ successful implementation. When new or revised policies are developed, use students to help get the word out. For example, the Student Advisory Board could go into individual classes for a few minutes to talk about the purpose of new policies, share it over the morning or afternoon announcements, or write about it for the school paper, website, or yearbook. The more you educate students about potential issues and concerns, the more willing they are to take ownership of reasonable policies to prevent the misuse of technology.
It is also a good idea to give youth an opportunity to offer constructive criticism on the wording of your formal rules, the informal and formal penalties tied to various transgressions, and the curricula and related programming you have in place (or are considering). Allow them to articulate their thoughts and suggestions about what they believe will work to change prevailing mentalities across campus, and meaningfully promote a school climate that is all about appropriate and responsible behaviors (at school and online). Truly, they will let you know what they think is “lame” and what they think will actually succeed.
Listen to students. The last thing you want to do is to waste time, effort, and resources on a creative initiative the adults thought was a fantastic idea, but ends up as a complete and utter FAIL. To be honest, that will do more bad than good by reaffirming student suspicion that the school is oblivious and completely out of the loop. Since teens are fully immersed in all things technological and social, it is crucial to enlist their help in determining how best the school can equip the student body with the skills and knowledge to be great digital citizens, how best to pitch responsible online behavior as “cool” and “what we do around here,” and how best to get everyone on board.
ITO Club – Student Leaders Transforming School Climate to Prevent Bullying
For a few years now, I have admired the leadership and initiative of Ms. Geraldine Johnson, Bullying Prevention Coordinator for Pennsylvania’s Cumberland Valley School District. She stands out in my mind as one of the most caring youth workers I have ever known, and it is so inspiring to see the love she has for her students and the love her students have for her. Together, they have proactively sought to combat bullying and create an environment in which kindness, peer respect, and acceptance reign supreme. Central to this effort is their ITO Club, which we featured in our new cyberbullying book for teens entitled “Words Wound: Delete Cyberbullying and Make Kindness Go Viral.” ITO stands for “It Takes One” – and that message is the primary thread in the fabric of their programming to really make a difference and transform their school community for good. Here is her story:
In my role as a behavior specialist and special educator for over 30 years, I have done many social skill lessons and bullying prevention lessons that involve role-play with students of all ages. During these discussions and role-plays I found that most students do not agree with the mistreatment of their peers, but do not always know what to do about it. I discovered that – just like when teaching academics – the more we teach students how and what to do, the more likely they are to do it! I decided that in order to get students to support each and to be active bystanders, they need to be taught explicitly what to do.
Most students are able to express how uncomfortable the unkind behaviors make them feel, but do not know how to respond. That is what motivated me to start the ITO (It Takes One) Club – to teach the students that behavior –good and bad – is contagious, and if one person stands up for someone who is being treated unkindly, others will follow. I wanted it to be “popular” and “cool” to be kind. I wanted to have a place for students to learn how to support each other in fun, supportive, and creative ways. ITO has become much more than that…. It has become not only a club, but a place for students to learn to support each other, a major change agent. Students are spreading the message, “It takes one. Be one.” And “It takes one. I am one.” The emphasis of the club has become not only how to support someone who is being treated in an unkind way, but also how to be pro-active and prevent incidents from happening. Students are being reinforced for “being the change.” Our goal is to have all students at CV know that if something unkind is done to them, there will be staff and students there to support them.
Implementing ITO in our schools requires a lot of planning, cooperation, and passion from students and adults. Without the support and cooperation from school and district administration, the ITO program would not be able to thrive. Fortunately, our principals, Mr. Rob Martin (co-advisor) and Ms. Judy Baumgardner are passionate about the program and willing to devote time and energy into making it work. Additionally, Mr. Martin and Ms. Baumgardner model for parents, students, and staff what “treating others with respect” looks like on a daily basis. Being an ITO advisor requires a major time commitment in order to be available to students, to assess the effects of the program, to do research, and to attend club activities and meetings. Besides having a passion for the mission, advisors must also enjoy working with adolescents, knowing when to step back and let students take the lead. Advisors must also be able to encourage students not to be defeated by the naysayers and to keep things positive while prioritizing and assessing our efforts.
Students who lead the club must also model the respectful behaviors we are trying to spread. Our student leaders go through process which includes filling out an application, writing an essay, teacher evaluation, and formal interviews with current ITO leaders and advisors. We have learned that involving students in every level of the process is an important component to making ITO successful. The student leaders become our “eyes and ears” of the school, not about specific behaviors or incidents, but about what students are thinking and what will work to get the message across to them. We have found that both students and staff are much more receptive to information if it comes from students themselves. Our student leaders give our adult bullying prevention team feedback on class meetings and activities in order to make information relevant and student-friendly.
Because our student leaders have such an important voice in planning and intervention, it is also very important that our leaders are educated on the most up-to-date research-based information on bullying prevention and school climate. To accomplish this, we do formal training with our student leaders, using such resources as Dr. Sameer Hinduja’s work and resources, combined with the “Olweus Bullying Prevention Program.” As a certified Olweus trainer, I bring the most up-to- date information to the leaders so they can be confident in their efforts to spread the word in their presentations, club activities, and in social media. Student leaders must also learn to work as a team and compromise on projects. Our eventual goal is to add the ITO program to the already existing bullying prevention programs in all levels, from elementary to secondary, so every student can benefit from ITO.
Our student leaders meet with us bi- weekly to plan club meetings. The club meetings, also bi-weekly, include activities such as guest speakers, parties, team building activities, socials, and community events. Our leaders use social media to get the word out about meetings. All students are invited to the club activities. We put great effort into getting students from different groups, clubs, and interests to join us. An anonymous referral system that is available to all students, staff and parents is also used to find students who need extra support and possibly intervention. This has helped us to identify teens who have been marginalized for some reason or another, but are incredibly amazing people and who need to get plugged in. Finally, students who are inspired to step up and make a positive change here at our school are recognized and commended by the staff and administration.
In my thirty-plus years as an educator, being the creator and advisor for the ITO program has been one of the most rewarding experiences I have had. Although there have been challenges, I am reminded on a daily basis how these students are making a positive change and affecting the lives of so many in our school and community.
Here are some additional perspectives from students I met while working with Geraldine:
ITO (It Takes One) is an outlet for some, and a safe place for others. ITO for me was both but most importantly it was a club that I could express my passion for preventing something so awful in our school. It has given me more opportunities than ever imagined and a new appreciation for teamwork and compromise. ITO has taught me to still believe in the good hearts of high school students but always be aware that everyone isn’t as kind- hearted, but you always have a friend in this club. Personally, this club has taught me invaluable life lessons and I have met life changing people along the way. My personal mission statement is that it is by far “more cool” to be the nice kid and be the kid to stand up for someone rather than turning a shoulder or even engaging in the action. Being nice will be the trait to take you places in this world.
~ Dana Basehore
As a senior leader for ITO (It Takes One) Club, I advise our media relations within the school and throughout social media networks. My goal is to spread our mission as far as the eye can see, and beyond! We work to prevent harassment within our community, and this serves to bring people together. I have seen firsthand how great of an impact our efforts have been through the lives of our high school students, and we have so much more to achieve with our club members this year! My hope is to reach as many students as possible with our message and teach students and community members how to bring people together for a common cause. Learning to be an active bystander has really helped me in difficult situations, and I am honored to be a senior leader for one of the most important clubs that is not only making a change in our school, but also in our society.
~ Aeliana Lomax
Getting Teens to Rethink Cyberbullying
This year, I’ve enjoyed being in touch with Trisha Prabhu, a 14-year-old freshman at Neuqua Valley High School in Naperville, Illinois. In the fall of 2013, after hearing about a young girl’s suicide because of cyberbullying, she set out to design a long-term solution to cyberbullying. Her work led her to the product Rethink, which won a spot as a Google Science Fair 2014 Global Finalist. Rethink gives adolescents trying to post an offensive message on social media a second chance to reconsider their decision. Her product idea also won first prize at the PowerPitch Competition at 1871, Chicago’s technology and entrepreneurial hub. Rethink has been covered on Business Insider, the International Business Times, the Huffington Post, and several other media outlets. She currently holds a Provisional Patent with the United States Patent and Trademark Office for her Rethink idea. Finally, she recently spoke at TEDxTeen in London (and did amazing)!
I thought it would be valuable for our audience to hear the specifics of her story, because it is just really inspiring. I want teens to know that many times, your answers and solutions can truly make a difference. Adults don’t have things figured out, and we need teens to help us tackle the problems that they face in adolescence. Their voices and their ideas matter, and they can transform their schools and communities – and ultimately even contribute to the betterment of society – as Trisha hopes to do!
In the fall of 2013, I came home from school to read the story of a young girl named Rebecca Sedwick. She was 11 years old and lived in Florida. Over the last few years, she had been extensively cyberbullied by classmates. After contacting administrators and switching schools, the cyberbullying persisted. Rebecca jumped off of her town’s water tower to her death. I was shocked, heartbroken and angry when I learned of the news of this young girl’s suicide. How could a girl younger than myself be pushed to take her own life? How could this have happened? I didn’t even want to imagine what her life must’ve been like during the last few weeks before her suicide, and what her family was going through now. I knew immediately I had to do something to stop this hurting from ever happening again – I became passionate to help stop cyberbullying.
From a young age, I’ve always had thick skin. I’ve received offensive messages online about my wardrobe, etc. but I’ve always brushed them off and moved on with life. But after reading about how cyberbullying had so terribly affected Rebecca, I decided that enough was enough. Statistics showed that a large number of adolescents in the United States alone had been cyberbullied, and that many of them showed signs of suicidal tendencies. As I researched more, I was stunned – one quarter of the world’s population are adolescents. That’s about 1.8 billion teens. Cyberbullied victims suffer silently from low self-esteem, depression, drop out of school and suffer from suicidal tendencies. Some of the recent studies show that the negative effects of cyberbullying lasts decades after the offensive messages were first posted.
Current solutions to stop cyberbullying are short-term and ineffective. Many popular social media sites today offer a STOP, BLOCK, TELL solution to try to stop the cyberbullying. But why, I wondered, were we placing the burden on the victim to block the cyberbullying, after the damage was done? Many other sites recommend immediately alerting a parent or guardian about the cyberbullying – but 9 out of 10 times, adolescents don’t tell anyone that their being cyberbullied and suffer in silence.
I truly couldn’t believe that adolescents could be so awful and cruel on social media. What was the root cause of this problem? What was the science behind this awful behavior? Why did kids cyberbully? Research showed that adolescents’ brain is likened to a car with no brakes. There is an area of the brain called the pre-frontal cortex that controls decision making. It isn’t fully developed until the early to mid-twenties, which is why we often see adolescents making quirky, rash behavior. Research has already linked this behavior to early drug and substance abuse, decisions that students can later regret, but no one had ever drawn a correlation between this research and social media abuse. But what if that correlation actually existed? I wondered – what if adolescents were given a chance to reconsider their decision to post an offensive message on social media – would they change their minds and decide not to post that message?
I decided to use my science and technology skills to come up with a way to test this idea, and created two software systems, Baseline and Rethink. The Baseline System would present test subjects with a series of hurtful messages and measure the adolescents’ willingness to post them on social media. The Rethink Software System would also measure the test subject’s willingness, but if they agreed to post anything hurtful, it would alert them indicating “Hold on – that message that you are about to send, that may be hurtful to others. Are you sure you want to post it?” After a total of 1500 well-controlled and fair trials, I was faced with some stunning results. An incredible 93% of the time, when adolescents were posed with a Rethink alert, they changed their mind, and decided not to post the offensive message! Overall willingness dropped from an initial 71.4% to 4.6%. That was a huge success.
I couldn’t believe it – but this could be the long-term, effective method to stop cyberbullying at the source, before the damage was done! More than ever, I felt like Rebecca, Tyler Clementi, and so many others around the world that had ended their life because of cyberbullying had finally got the justice they deserved. The fact is, cyberbullying is a huge problem. It’s a silent pandemic that has already affected so many, and left ignored, in this social media revolution, with many to come. It’s been an amazing journey to have come one step closer to conquering cyberbullying.
I am working tirelessly on making this a reality so that Rethink works with any social media site (old, new and ones to come) on both web and mobile platforms. I am hoping to get Rethink up and running in the next few months. My high school is already working on adopting Rethink as their new anti-cyberbullying slogan. It’s amazing to know I’ve been able to give back to my community.
Whenever I receive an email saying, “Trisha, thank you so much. I feel safer for my kids to be going on social media now that I know Rethink is going to be implemented,” it really brings joy to my heart. Recently, someone asked me, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” I remember smiling and saying, “If I’ve made this world a better place in the next 10 years, then I think I’m on the right track.” For now, making the world a better place is stopping cyberbullying – and Rethink has brought me even closer to that reality.
A Girl and her Guitar, Inspiring Bullying Victims to Stay Strong
Recently, I have been in touch with Kathleen, who won Seventeen Magazine’s 2013 Mean Stinks contest by sharing a song she wrote which has been played in over thirty schools nationwide. It’s not just any song, it’s a song rooted in Kathleen’s desire to use her talents to encourage teens like her who have experienced bullying to not let the hate, harassment, and humiliation get to them. I really recommend that you take the time to check it out and support her by downloading it, because it’s meaningful, catchy, compelling, and impactful. And that is really hard to do with this topic. I am also drawn to her story because I play acoustic guitar and have written a few songs, and it just makes me so happy to see someone take their unique personal giftings and apply them in a way that can inspire change and bring hope to others. Her primary message is: Be strong, and be yourself. I love that. Her song, “Don’t Let Them In” can be downloaded from iTunes and bandcamp. She can be found on social media and YouTube via @KathleenMusic16, and her is story below:
I wrote this song because I felt that most bullying prevention campaigns I witnessed at school were solely focused on getting the bullies to stop bullying. I thought there needed to be a message directly to victims to not let bullies get to them, because bullies are often empowered by the reaction they get from the victim. I had witnessed multiple times that if a victim would stand firm and confident and act like the bully’s words didn’t affect them, the bully would get discouraged and move on to a victim he/she could get a reaction from. I also found that some bullies simply could not be reached by the school programs – they were going to continue to be mean and bully others, no matter what. Some kids (and adults) are just mean, maybe because of problems in their personal lives. I don’t mean to suggest that bullying prevention programs are not effective. Some definitely are. But some individuals cannot be reached for whatever reason (at least by the efforts of just the school) and I saw a need to empower victims to be true to themselves, not to let bullies into their hearts, and not to give the bullies the reaction they are looking for.
I have found that music is the most powerful way to convey a message. Music has the incredible ability to move people. I know this to be true because I have received messages from around the country and the world from victims who have told me they’ve listened to my song over and over to give them the strength to face their bullies. I know that if I had made a video of a speech, or a slide presentation, it would not have the same impact as my message put to music.
I want my song to empower victims to wake up every day and have the courage to face anyone who makes fun of them for who they are. My song encourages them that there are people out there who care, will provide a shoulder to cry on, and will support them. Victims should never change who they are for bullies. If they don’t let them in, bullies will never win.
I would really love it if bystanders always took a stand against bullying. But in the heat of the moment, it is very hard for the kids that want to intervene to do so without bringing the bullying upon themselves. When I was younger, I was one of those kids who was afraid to stand up, and I would feel guilty about it. As I matured, I gained confidence and became active in my school’s anti-bullying group and toured local schools counseling younger kids on bullying prevention. When I realized I had a gift for writing music, I knew I could put my gift to use to make an impact with bullying victims. I took the opportunity to fill a void I saw in bullying prevention programs.
Ideally, I want my song to be looked at not just as a public service announcement, but as a principle to be embraced by everyone. I have received messages from victims across the country and world that tell me how much my song has helped them or a friend. One girl told me she played it for a friend and that the girl said it saved her life. A boy told me he listens to my song every morning to give him the strength to face the bullies at school. There is no way to describe the feeling I get when a victim tells me that the message and melody I created has improved their life. I want to have my song reach even more people so that they can feel the same hope and confidence it has brought to others. Knowing that my song made a difference in a person’s life is the biggest reward of all.
Cyberbullying Prevention through Dance and the Spoken Word
As National Bullying Prevention Month rolls on, we continue to highlight extraordinary movements and projects designed to combat cruelty and rekindle kindness, tolerance, and respect. Today, I want to feature the efforts of MusEffect, a very talented dance company out of Los Angeles. I have been in touch with their director, Jessica Starr, because I was so inspired by the Public Service Announcement video she and her team dreamed up, choreographed, and organized against the powerful and passionate backdrop of spoken word poetry performed by Azure Antoinette. My attention was captured because 1) I had heard some of Azure’s work years ago 2) My sister and I grew up in dance and the performing arts 3) the storyline is compelling and leaves an impact after watching it with your full attention. To be honest, there are a lot of “meh” PSAs that have been created with the best of intentions, but fall short in stirring emotions and inciting action. And I’ve seen so many over the years. This one, on the other hand, stands apart like few that have gone before it. From our conversations, Jessica doesn’t just care about dance – she cares about social change and social responsibility, and above all else simply wants to make a difference. And that draws me towards their efforts all the more. Here are her thoughts:
As a company our number one purpose is to affect people. We don’t look at dance as merely a form of entertainment or art, but rather a way of moving people into action. When our audiences feel our work and relate to the subject at hand, we are creating a lasting impression on them – which leads to change. MusEffect’s mission is to use our art (which houses dance, spoken word and film) to bring awareness to some of the social causes that need it the most. Our hearts are huge and our dedication is real, and we are committed from the beginning to spread our work to the masses. We know that our intentions would be felt by the people who need to hear it the most.
We feel like cyberbullying is one of the least talked about but most harmful forms of bullying in today’s youth generation. So much of our self-worth is placed on how many people like your Instagram post, who accepts your friend requests, and who actually takes the time to comment on our pictures. We place far too much value on our relationships in cyberspace, and it has truly changed the way we interact with people face to face.
We think what we’ve done here really stands apart – and that was our goal. “Being unique” is challenging to achieve in today’s society. There are so many variations of expression and art that it is difficult to determine how you can be more original than the person next to you. However, MusEffect as a whole is SINCERE, and 100% authentically involved and invested in our work. The dancers of MusEffect are not just performing rehearsed movements; instead, they understand why they are doing it. As such, the intention of the piece takes first priority for us. I am confident THAT is what you feel when you see MusEffect perform as a group. Our hearts speak louder than our movement ever could.
It has been so wonderful to see how this project has brought our community together. Our group of artists is sincerely one of the most eclectic bunch of people I have ever known. We are all from different backgrounds, we look different, each have a different artistic style and focus, but we are ALL pulled together by one element, our heart to move people with our art. Building our resumes and receiving a pay check is NOT enough for us. So when the MusEffect dancers, our Muse Media team, and our resident poet Azure Antoinette get together, it is inevitably magic. Creating together for a cause will, without a doubt, strengthen our bond as a company and re-affirm why we make the day-to-day sacrifices that we do.
Now that this video is gaining traction across the nation and even world, we are using this specific month to really encourage action amongst our community and followers. Inspiring people to JUST talk about it will open opportunities for healing and growth. In addition to spreading the video to all who need to see it, we are going to host some face-to-face discussions with various youth groups. This will give them an opportunity to discuss the causes and effects of cyberbullying, and empower them to actively find solutions within their own community.
Here are some thoughts from some members of our community, which came together to create this vision and make it into a reality. In their words, you can hear how and why this matters so much to them. And because their hearts were so intimately involved in the process, I believe the final product shined.
Every time Jessica Starr comes to me with an idea, with a concept, I end up a changed human, a stretched writer, a gutted human. I have such a unique family. Personally, professionally. I am whatever is more elaborate than blessed, I am so much more than ‘lucky.’ That is for leprechauns and cartoons. I am rich, oil sultan rich. Thank you MusEffect – for redefining the human body and movement – what a phenomenal group of human beings you are. And what a brilliant answer to my prayer of always wanting to be surrounded by greatness. ~ Azure Antoinette, MusEffect resident poet
The focus of MusEffect is to bring to light all the topics that people are afraid to talk about, such as cyberbullying. The reason why society is scared of facing it head on is because we all contribute to the issue in one way or another. If we aren’t taking a physical stand against it, then we might as well be the bullies ourselves. ~ Matthew Fata, MusEffect dancer, 23
Being a dancer in the company, and having personally experienced being cyber bullied was, in this case, really helpful to me. I was able to tap into what it felt like to be the victim of something that happens to thousands of people all the time. I wouldn’t want what happened to me to happen to anyone. My intention during the piece was stronger because I was able to bring my personal connection to the issue. I wanted people to know that they aren’t alone and everyone should be aware of how much it really does happen and how much of a negative impact it has on people. ~ Sadie Posey, MusEffect dancer, 16
Having an 11-year-old grow up in this generation, it is very important for them to understand and grasp the concept of true reality vs. social media reality. In today’s world kids, are so wrapped up in getting attention via social media (i.e., likes, shares, etc.) it is important to remind them of true friendships. ~ Tanecia Wise – Mother of Taryn Bee, Mini Muse dancer, 11
This video gives parents, teachers, everyone a platform for discussion. A great reminder to all of how we treat everyone not only face to face but also via the Internet. ~ Alayna Jennings – MusEffect Dancer, 21
As a company, our goal is to interest and affect people through artistry and movement. We are taking entertainment to an entirely new level, and this is what makes MusEffect and this PSA so unique. A new angle, a new approach. We focus on many social issues and we walk into every project with the same attitude and belief: if we can instill change in even just one person, if we can affect one person, it is absolutely worth doing.
Natural Day – Love Yourself Before You Can Love Others
Recently, I had the amazing opportunity to get to know Sanah Jivani, who is a senior at Klein Collins High School, and the founder of the international #naturalday movement. I was blown away by her story, and told her how important it was for others to hear it and be inspired by it (as I was). Please take the time to watch her YouTube video filmed earlier this year, and support her in any way you can. Finally, please share it with the teens you care for so they know they can take any perceived trial and turn it into a triumph – and even one that can positively and powerfully affect many other lives. Here is Sanah’s story:
First diagnosed with Alopecia at the age of three, I never expected it to affect my life the way did. For the first few years of my life, I had “Alopecia Areata,” which means hair loss only in certain areas. In my seventh grade year, however, I was diagnosed with “Alopecia Universalis,” which means total body hair loss. My hair was truly my crown of glory. It set me apart, it shaped my look and best of all, it helped me feel confident. But all of that disappeared the morning I woke up completely bald. Everything was gone.
Or, at least I thought it was. I had no idea what a positive impact my hair loss would end up having on my life. At the time, I was devastated. I remember immediately buying a wig to cover up my shame, embarrassment and sorrow. I remember standing in front of the mirror and crying for hours, desperately wanting to be anyone but myself. Most of all, though, I remember the hate.
I remember the day the girl in the locker room who called me out in front of everyone for always changing in the bathroom stall. She figured out I wore a wig, and told everyone the sad, sad truth: I was too scared to change in front of everyone because I was scared my wig would slip off.
I remember the day I opened my locker and a note slipped out. I carefully unfolded it, not knowing what to expect, but almost threw up when I read the title. “Fifty ways to go KILL YOURSELF” was clearly printed at the top with black ink. I wanted to die right then.
I remember the day I logged into Facebook to see fifteen notifications and one friend request…. I had been tagged in several statuses by the “Sanah BurnPage,” a profile which also added me as a friend. It was a profile dedicated to posting incredibly cruel status updates about me. The first post? “Sanah Jivani wears a wig.” I felt more exposed than ever.
I remember all of these days, sadly, and the wounds they left on my heart may never disappear. I don’t think the eighth grade girl inside of me can ever get over getting asked to homecoming as a “joke.” These sick barbs and pranks became too much, and I slowly watched my life spiral out of control.
I think the day I knew I needed help was when I received a letter in the mail saying if I received one more absence in History class, I would get denied credit. I used to love History. At that moment I knew that I had lost control.
A week before my freshman year began, I ditched my wig. My hands trembled as I posted a video on Facebook telling my story. I didn’t know what to expect. At first, I honestly thought the world might end. I honestly thought my friends would stop being my friends and my relatives would be so ashamed that they wouldn’t want to associate with me. I honestly thought what I was doing was dumb, but I did it anyway. I did it because I couldn’t handle hiding who I was for a second longer. I did it because I wanted to share my story, even if my voice was shaking. I did it for me, and no one else.
The moment I clicked “post,” I was set free. Tears filled my eyes and panic filled my hearts moments afterwards, but I didn’t regret it one bit. I knew that this was the first step to loving myself completely. I knew that this fifteen seconds of insane courage would change everything. Most importantly, I knew I no longer was going to hide, and a huge burden was suddenly lifted off my chest.
It’s like the sun started shining and the birds started chirping again. A sense of freedom filled me. Even though everything was still far from perfect, I knew that with this new freedom, I could overcome everything. I felt empowered by the comments people left on my Facebook page after reading my story and learning about my journey with the wig, and I finally understood that people can only love you once you learn to love yourself. I also learned that from now on, my life wasn’t only about myself… It was about all the people I could inspire. That night I became a role model, whether I liked it or not….
After the buzz and Facebook comments of the first few days died down, I realized how bumpy the road to self-love would be. I realized that loving myself was much easier when I received “You’re beautiful” comments on my video. I realized that while this first bit of strength was a wonderful boost, loving myself would require daily courage. The hardest part, though, was realizing that this was a battle I would have to learn to fight on my own.
I would have to learn to love myself the nights when I sat on my bathroom floor crying, because life started becoming way too overwhelming.
I would have to learn to love myself the days at the grocery store, when a little girl stared at me and tugged on her moms purse and innocently asked, “Mom, is that a girl or a boy? And why are they bald?”
I would have to learn to love myself at my worst and my best, during the hard and the easy.
And it’s a daily journey; some days I feel like the prettiest girl in the world, and others, I just want to stay in my room and hide. Some days I love being a role model, and others, I just want to be a teenage girl. Most days, though, I am completely in love with my life and my journey, and I wouldn’t trade it for a thing.
Self-love is an amazing gift everyone deserves to discover. Walking around on a windy day and feeling the breeze hit my bare head is the most rewarding thing ever, and it makes every day worth it. But, as happy as my new found confidence made me, I felt sad. It wasn’t fair. It wasn’t fair that I had this new and amazing self-love and confidence while others had to suffer. It hurt me to know that people were in the same position I was in just a year ago.
With that in mind, my best friend and I started a “Natural Day” at my school. Natural Day, or February 13th (the day before Valentine’s Day, because it’s important to love yourself before you love others) is a day I challenged students to let go of the one thing that tied them down. Everybody has a “wig” whether it is their hair, make-up, or something deeper than physical, such as a past story that haunts them. Natural Day is about letting go of all of that. It’s about being free, and learning to love yourself the way I learned to love myself. And that’s exactly what I wanted for the students of my high school.
My best friend and I made posters, spoke on the morning announcements and did everything we could to spread Natural Day’s message. The most powerful moment, though, was when I somehow formed the courage to stand in front of the whole school and share my story. I was a freshman trying to get a school full of upperclassmen to support a movement I made up. I remember standing on stage in front of the whole school, pouring out my heart and journey. Tears filled my eyes as I ended with the statement, “If I can do it everyday, you can do it once.” The cafeteria filled with applause, and I knew I finally connected with my peers. The next day, I had no idea what to expect. What I found was a school full of people who dared to let go, just like I had.
Every year at my school we have strived for a bigger and better Natural Day. The next year, my friend and I hand-wrote 2,000 sticky notes with positive messages such as: “You’re Beautiful” and “Stay Strong.” Although our hands were cramping, we stayed at the school late in the evening hanging them up on the day before Natural Day. Seeing the students’ reaction as they walked in and stuck the sticky notes in their binders made every moment worth it.
Of course, there were those who responded with negativity. There were those who crumpled up our sticky notes and laughed at the freshman girl trying to make a change, but I didn’t mind. I didn’t mind because for the first time in four years, I saw my good friend come to school without make-up. I saw a senior boy who had an abusive past open up about his history on Natural Day. I saw courage, and courage and strength always rises above hate.
At first, I was really content with seeing the girls and guys at my school open up and let go of their insecurities. Soon after, though, I began to feel like my efforts weren’t enough. I wanted to do more. Seeing Natural Day blow up was amazing, but I wanted other schools and communities to experience its impact as well. So, I decided to contact several school counselors, a number of self-esteem organizations, and created a video that eventually went viral. I talked to whoever I could and shared Natural Day’s story. I did everything to make this movement spread, because I understood the importance of it.
Today, Natural Day is in 28 different countries and 11 schools around the world. Schools participating host Natural Day’s similar to the one I held at my school. Countries that don’t have schools participating use “#NaturalDay” on social media to post pictures and share stories of courage. Everyone can participate, and that’s one of the things that makes Natural Day so special. The whole world’s able to connect, open up and provide each other with support. Sharing your story isn’t as terrifying if you’re not in it alone. On Natural Day, no one’s alone.
Although Natural Day has reached heights further than I could dream, the road here was no easy one. Making Natural Day an international movement has proved to be such a big challenge. One of the hardest parts is spreading the word. Everyday I’m doing something to share my story and let someone know about Natural Day. I’m spreading the world however I can, and I’m not going to stop until it’s on every calendar ever printed and trending worldwide on social media. Recently, I have also gotten the amazing opportunity to be the founder of a non-profit called LYNS or Love Your Natural Self. Hosting Natural Day as a non-profit this year will be a huge blessing, and I can’t wait to see where this journey will take me.
Another major challenge is funding. I send t-shirts, wristbands and other materials free of charge to all of the schools participating. I also present Natural Day at conferences and schools around around the country, and paying for these trips has become very expensive. I started collecting sponsorship money for Natural Day, hosting events at local restaurants and even starting online campaigns to raises funds. Every penny truly helps.
The biggest challenge, though, is all of the days I feel unmotivated. It’s the day’s where my friends are out at football games, and I’m at home typing up emails about Natural Day. It’s the day’s where I feel like I’m not making a difference, and nowhere close to changing the world. Then I remember why I’ve continued doing this for so long. I think back to the first International Natural Day that ever took place, and I think about a picture I saw. It was a girl going without her wig for the first time ever. I think to myself, “I may not be changing THE world, but I am changing HER world.” And that’s enough for me.
Natural Day has made an impact on so many lives. I’ve seen people open about abusive pasts. I’ve seen people go without the make-up that hides their acne. I’ve seen people be set free. People tell me I’m a hero. The truth is, I’m no hero. I may host Natural Day, but the true heroes are everyone who posts a picture on that day. The true heroes are the people who stand up and show courage that I know they have deep down inside of them. The true heroes are the people who inspire me far more than I could dream to inspire them. They are the ones who make Natural Day as life-changing as it is. I could not be more grateful for all that has happened, and all that is to come!
What Jennifer Lawrence can teach us about sexting among teens
This week, the Washington Post proclaimed that “sexting is the new first base.” This assertion was grounded in the results of a research study first published in 2012 (based on data from 2010). Researchers found that over one-fourth (28%) of 948 teens from seven public high schools in southeast Texas had sent a naked picture of themselves to someone else at some point in their lifetime. Other interesting findings included the fact that 31% of those surveyed revealed that they asked someone else for a sext, compared to a majority of respondents (57%) who indicated they had been asked for a sext. So, while it shouldn’t be considered a new norm and the majority of individuals simply don’t do it, it is happening to some extent. That is our reality.
Yesterday, a friend pointed me to a Vanity Fair cover story which shares a very candid and vulnerable interview with Academy Award-winning actress Jennifer Lawrence (if you don’t know her, I don’t know where you have been over the last few years). In it, she discusses how violated, angry, and devastated she felt after hackers stole private pictures of her from her iCloud account, images that she had shared with her significant other over time. And then a specific sentiment she expressed struck me:
“Every single thing that I tried to write made me cry or get angry. I started to write an apology, but I don’t have anything to say I’m sorry for. I was in a loving, healthy, great relationship for four years. It was long distance, and either your boyfriend is going to look at porn or he’s going to look at you.”
Without a doubt, I feel for Jennifer. I cannot imagine how unbelievably awful it is for something like this to happen. And I am not here to blame her in the least for what happened. I hope that the FBI succeeds in tracking down the culprits, and I hope that time helps bring healing (as she mentions in her interview) and she can put this behind her. Furthermore, those who sext really need to consider the depth of harm and pain she has experienced because of it, and determine if the benefits of their own participation outweigh the risk.
Where am I going with this, and how does all of this come together? I’m glad you asked. To me, Jennifer Lawrence’s words in the quote above underscore (in part) why sexting is a “thing.” You might say, what does it matter – every adult has a right to take and send naked pictures of themselves. I don’t disagree with that. But I spend my professional life trying to help and support a comparatively vulnerable population of adolescents make good decisions involving their technology use. And when nude pictures sent initially between possible or actual romantic partners get spread much more widely involving adolescents, it sometimes leads to disastrous consequences, like cyberbullying, threats, extortion, and suicide. To note, I am focusing in this blog on girls in heterosexual relationships since Jennifer Lawrence is a young woman esteemed by teen girls far and wide. We know that girls solicit sexts too, and we can bracket the other issues of sexting by guys, sexting in non-heterosexual relationships, and laws related to hacking and distributing personal images of others for now, and cover them in future blog posts.
I think most of us would agree that we live in a hypersexualized society. And in our culture, sexting can be construed as a way for adolescents to explore their sexuality without actually participating in the act of sex. Indeed, several teens have told us that they engage in sexting because “it is safer than having sex.” They don’t have to worry about getting pregnant or contracting a disease. “I can trust my boyfriend,” they say. “It’s not a big deal, and everyone in a relationship is doing it.” A study by Cox Communications in 2009 identified the following major motivations among 655 teens: because someone asked me to (43%), to have fun (43%), to impress someone (21%), to feel good about myself (18%), to try and date someone (8%). Another study involving 378 college freshmen in 2012 found that 17% did so because they felt pressured by a boyfriend. In still another study among 155 undergraduate psychology students also in 2012, 48% of men and 55% of women who had ever been in a committed relationship had engaged in unwanted but consensual sexting.
We know that if youth learn that sexualized behavior and appearance are approved of and rewarded by society and by the people whose opinions matter most to them, they are likely to internalize these standards and consequently engage in “self-sexualization.” Specifically related to gender, the American Psychological Association found that as girls participate actively in a consumer culture (e.g., often buying products and clothes designed to make them look physically appealing and sexy) and make choices about how to behave and whom to become (e.g., often styling their identities after the sexy celebrities who populate their cultural landscape), they are, in effect, sexualizing themselves. Keen observers of how social processes operate, girls anticipate that they will accrue social advantages, such as popularity, for buying into the sexualization of girls (i.e., themselves), and they fear social rejection for not doing so.
And this is where I want to bring the conversation back to Jennifer’s quote. She asserts that she needed to take and send those pictures to her boyfriend because it was a long-distance relationship, and since they couldn’t physically be together, pictures could help to keep his interest and perhaps sexually satisfy him because otherwise he would meet his sexual appetite by looking at porn. This is so crushing for me to hear, mostly because it may very well legitimize any rationalizations a teenage girl might make to engage in sexting just to not be rejected.
Let’s compare two hypothetical heterosexual relationship scenarios among teens, for the sake of argument and illustration. In one, a guy doesn’t ask his girlfriend for nude pictures because he doesn’t want to objectify her. And the girl doesn’t (and wouldn’t) send her boyfriend nude pictures because she wants him to love her for her mind and for her heart, and not just for her body. Those perspectives seem much more representative of a loving, great, healthy relationship then another one where A) the guy doesn’t have the self-control to wait to be with his girlfriend B) the guy decides to arguably cheat on his (exclusive, long-term) girlfriend by temporarily enjoying porn (i.e., other girls) in her stead C) the girlfriend feels compelled to send him pictures to satisfy his curiosity and urges, pictures she probably wouldn’t send if she didn’t think he “needed” them and/or if she felt fully safe and secure in the relationship and D) the girlfriend is frankly unable to trust him to not let his eyes and desires wander.
As mentioned above, there are a number of reasons why individuals engage in sexting. And I am not judging them at all, as I want to always let people be people, and do as they desire. Please understand that before telling me I am a prude, or extoling the virtues of embracing one’s sexuality in this manner, etc. I am simply making a point that regardless of if or why you take and send nude pictures to someone you like or someone you’re involved with, don’t contribute to your own objectification. Don’t allow social or personal obligation or pressure to compel you to do something you otherwise wouldn’t. And finally, let’s remind the teens we care about to really know their worth, fully own their body, and not fear being rejected (socially or individually) because they didn’t defer to the sexual appetite of another.
Image source: http://www.worldofpctures.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/08/Jennifer-Lawrence-2014.jpeg