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.
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
Technology Use Contract
By Sameer Hinduja and Justin W. Patchin
Use this Technology Use Contract to establish an open line of communication regarding the child and parent expectations when it comes to using technology.
From: Hinduja, S. & Patchin, J. W. (2015). Bullying Beyond the Schoolyard: Preventing and Responding to Cyberbullying (2nd Ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications (978-1483349930).