Standing Up and Speaking Out Against Cyberbullying
I met Sarah Ball a couple of years ago, as she sat in the front row of a cyberbullying presentation I gave to educators at a national conference held in Orlando. As a teenager, she stood out from the rest of my audience of school professionals. She also stood out in terms of her contagious enthusiasm and interest, which was so evident in our conversation after my talk. Sarah told me of her story, and how she had personally asked the conference organizers if she could attend for free (since she was still in high school!) simply because she cared so much about this issue and wanted to make a meaningful difference. We have kept in touch since then, and we were able to feature some of her personal story in Words Wound: Delete Cyberbullying and Make Kindness Go Viral. I wanted to feature it for our site visitors here as well, since it is inspiring – and because it can serve to motivate other teens and young adults to be powerful instruments of change in their communities!
I’ve had to deal with some really horrible bullying and cyberbullying. But I’ve tried to fight the good fight and to do something about it on a bigger scale, especially because I kept meeting others who were struggling, too. With my mind and heart heavy due to my situation and that of others, I started to research cyberbullying. Ryan Halligan, Megan Meier, Jeffrey Johnston, and more and more names kept coming up. Reading their stories and the decisions they made to end their cyberbullying cut me deeply. I remembered an organization my mom had told me about called DoSomething.org. It’s a place for kids and teens to do something to better the world. I then decided to create Unbreakable, a project to help me heal as well as heal others who were bullied. I didn’t have much of a plan at first—I just knew that I wanted to do whatever I could to end cyberbullying.
Soon, I got more passionate and wanted to tell more people what was happening. I wanted to be a voice for all victims of bullying. I printed out hundreds of pages of websites made just to attack kids. I sent a letter describing myself, my Unbreakable project, stories of suicide, and pages and pages of bullying sites to media outlets, politicians, law enforcement, celebrities, school superintendents, and anyone else I hoped would listen. The Tampa Tribune, ABC News, and Bay News 9 responded. Soon I was on a media train with Unbreakable. I created an Unbreakable Facebook fan page. My page targeted cyberbullies and the creators of the cruel sites. It also told the stories of Ryan, Megan, and Jeffrey.
In the beginning, the page was mostly a surge of congratulations to “whoever this is” speaking out. (Before the media buzz, I didn’t tell people that I was behind Unbreakable.) One student who had previously cyberbullied people posted, “I don’t know who this is but you are an inspiration to me. Thank you for standing up and speaking out.” I think it’s awesome that my project has encouraged others to change their ways, and that Unbreakable got a lot more students to think and care about this important issue.
As a result of these efforts, I have been invited to speak at Bullying Summits, Parent Workshops, School Board Workshops, Kiwanis and Rotary Clubs, universities, and numerous schools. Through these engagements, I met leaders in my community who wanted to help make a major countywide anti-bullying event happen, even though it had never been done before. For six months, we planned, fundraised, and gathered support from the NHL and NBA as well as local businesses and restaurants. And then the day finally came!
The Unbreakable Movement for Peace program was a massive success. It was promoted all week in all the schools in my county, we had numerous guest speakers, free food and drinks for 500 people, and over 35 vendors. The event kicked off with Central High School’s ROTC performing the National Anthem, and then I spoke about this cause and those who have been victimized by cyberbullying. We all then participated in a beautiful balloon release to remember those who chose death as an escape from their bullies.
I continue to remain passionate about cyberbullying, and aim to keep honoring the platform and opportunities that I have been given. I want to help inspire other teens to make great decisions, contribute to the betterment of society, and stand up for what they believe in (and what I believe in!). We can all take the trials we’ve experienced, and turn them into something positive – something that can help the lives of so many others around us. We just need to stay motivated to take our good intentions and turn them into action!
~ Sarah Ball, 19, Florida
Preventing Bullying through Kindness
I’ve been working with Adam Sherman of the To Be Kind movement over the last few years, as he is an award-winning educator here in my home state of Florida (and also worked in the county where I went to school while growing up!). He is passionate about creating positive climates within schools to reduce violence, harassment, and hate, and his enthusiasm is contagious and so refreshing to see. While teaching Leadership classes at school, he spearheaded a curriculum to encourage a peer environment that helps (and not hurts) others, and it has gained significant traction around Florida.
I’ve asked him and a few of his students to share some of their thoughts below. My hope is that it inspires teachers and counselors to identify a cadre on campus that can take this idea and run with it! With the new academic year upon us, I think it is essential to enlist teens to set the right tone early on regarding bullying and cyberbullying. With effort and follow-through, it has the potential to truly transform the school community.
The educator (Adam Sherman):
Kindness is difficult for students. The hard part with kindness is that our collective society has made it easier to be mean. It is easier, and often more comfortable, to laugh at others, to judge them, to talk negatively behind their back, etc. For lack of a better description, hurting others is sometimes a socially acceptable norm. So when students, or anyone for that matter, go out of their way to do/say something with kindness, they are actually looked at in a negative light. It often means they are going against their peers and that opens them up to be hurt negatively. That means students are quick to give up. As an educator, and quite simply as an adult, I have to help show them that they must continue to persevere despite the nay-sayers.
It can be difficult to imagine teaching young people to be kind. After all, when one thinks of bullying, they automatically think of it as a “rite-of-passage” and that all students do it. But for me, it is easy to help them learn a different way through life because I try to look to my own actions first. Just as anyone else, I make mistakes and say things I don’t mean, but I have to set the example for the students. I have to live my life kindly so that they can learn the behavior. We aren’t born to be mean, we learn to be that way.
When it comes to how we divy up the responsibilities of keeping this program moving, the students are tasked with influencing their peers. They take care of the school operations as well as helping me to design the materials we will use. I handle basically everything else. I monitor paperwork, social media (Facebook and Twitter), community involvement, inquiries, expansion, etc. I want the students to focus on their peers.
That is one of the reasons the program has become so successful. While we have created a model, it can be uniquely individualized for each school that takes it on. We have standards that we like to keep up and basic principles for schools to follow, but anyone who is familiar with education knows that every school is different. What one school needs may not be needed elsewhere. So the hope is that a strong group of students, with a strong adult role model, can create a culture of kindness and make school a place that students want to be. And the students certainly do that.
Since our program has begun three years ago, much has changed in physicality. My original students have moved on (except for one who remains on the Board of Directors), I have changed school districts (where of course I have already laid the groundwork to continue TBK), and though we have grown beyond what we ever thought we would, much remains the same. The message of TBK remains so simple, and also drives its growing popularity. Our pledge, “Bullying ends where kindness begins; it begins with me,” is something that people of all ages can easily remember. We can’t change the behaviors of others, but we can certainly control the behaviors of ourselves. If we practice kindness, we will be surrounded by kindness. And when we are faced with negativity, we can either let it get to us, or we can respond to it by being kind. Sometimes that’s all it takes to turn that negative into a positive.
The students (Quinn Solomon, Joshua Sanchez, Danielle Soltren of Lake Brantley High School):
Over the past few years, social media has boomed. But as its popularity grows, so does the ability to mistreat others through the Internet. Often, there’s a feeling of hopelessness when it comes to bullying. Some people assume that it’s a problem that will always exist. We seek to destroy that mentality by showing the power of kindness, both in person and online. We’re optimistic that we can eliminate bullying step-by-step. After a terrifying experience when an online hit list threatened our students and faculty, our Leadership class knew they wanted to make a change.
After a long class discussion, someone suggested using social media as a way to help solve the bullying problem rather than make it worse. We decided to use the already trending idea of “tbh” (to be honest), where users on Facebook can like someone’s status and then receive an honest statement from him or her. Using the same format, we changed the idea to “to be kind.” Users still take part by liking a post on someone’s page. Then the original poster is supposed to give a compliment or write words of kindness on the wall of whoever liked the status. To Be Kind, or TBK, is a simple idea: Treat others as you would wish to be treated. Every one of us possesses the ability to be kind. This simplicity is the answer to preventing bullying.
The impact on our school was instantaneous. TBK turned into a buzz overnight. The very next day after we launched our idea, students were talking and trying to figure out what TBK was and where it came from. Using follow-up actions such as putting positive messages in lockers, we quickly turned it into a movement that lots of people wanted to be part of.
Like many new things, our idea hasn’t always been met with positivity. Many of the kind posts that students make on social media are rejected. Many people aren’t used to kindness anymore. We’re used to ridicule rather than compliments. So sometimes people post negativity in response. When that happens, we just thank them for expressing their feelings, or we ignore the comment. The purpose of TBK isn’t to instigate fighting or rumors, or to provide an outlet for people to criticize others. Its purpose is to show that social media and other everyday interactions can be improved with a few thoughtful words. Anyone, of any age, can spread a few extra smiles in a day. And TBK isn’t focused solely on students. We encourage parents and community members to get involved and to support our project at work and at home. We’ve also included the school faculty and staff by sharing words of kindness with them.
We take huge pride in TBK. It has grown into a symbol of anti-bullying not only at our school, but in many schools around our district, country, and beyond. For example, our school participates in a German exchange program. We’ve helped our partner school establish a TBK program, as well. The world wants kindness. People want to be treated as if they matter. That’s the ultimate purpose of the program. We know that kindness will continue to spread and bullying will continue to diminish. Remember: Bullying ends where kindness begins, and it begins with you.
Smart Social Networking: Fifteen Tips for Teens
By Sameer Hinduja and Justin W. Patchin
Don’t let your social media use negatively affect your life. Follow these simple strategies and avoid problems later!
Hinduja, S. & Patchin, J. W. (2014). Smart social networking: Fifteen tips for teens. Cyberbullying Research Center. Retrieved [insert date], from http://www.cyberbullying.us/smart_social_networking.pdf
Anonymous Postings on Confession Pages, Secret, and Whisper
What many adults don’t understand, they freak out about. Especially as it relates to teens. I’m generalizing here, but you know what I mean – we really don’t want the youth we care for to be having secrets, telling secrets, and keeping secrets away from us. Because we don’t fully trust them, either due to past experiences or due to messages from current events and the popular media. Well, in this environment we have seen the increasing popularity and notoriety of online mediums and platforms over which teens (and adults) can anonymously say whatever they want to those around them (see Justin’s post on Yik Yak) or to a larger social grouping. And it’s worth taking some time to discuss these, so that we know fact from fiction and don’t overreact.
To begin, Confessions sites on social media have received some attention in the press over the last year, and here at the Cyberbullying Research Center we continue to regularly hear about the experiences of teens on Facebook- and Twitter-based pages. . Confession pages allow anyone to share personal secrets, rumors, gossip, and anything else they might want others to know about but are hesitant to post publicly or in a way that is tied to their identity. And, of course, everyone who knows about the page (in a community, or school or other organization) can “like” it and thereby can stay in the loop by receiving its updates in their either in their News Feed or via the Twitter account they are following. At this point, they can then participate as a voyeur, or more actively by liking, commenting on, or sharing specific confessions.
As an example of how it works on, say, Facebook, a user first creates a “Fan” page (meaning, a page that represents a group or brand or entity, instead of a “Profile” page for themselves. Facebook does not require creators of “pages” to reveal their identity. Visitors can then send private messages to the page with specific confessions, and the administrator of the page then posts them publicly to the Wall for all “followers” to see. Another way to keep posts anonymous is to create an email account specifically to receive confessions from others, or set up a form via free online tools such as Google Docs (or Survey Monkey, or even an Ask.fm page). Then, “confessors” can clink on a link, open up the form, share their confession without giving any identifying information, and click “send.” The person behind it all then receives these anonymous confessions via email, and then can post them for all to see.
Outside of using Facebook or Twitter, other confessional platforms for smartphones have recently gained traction. Secret is a new app that recently came out for iOS (Apple) users only and has been described as an anonymous “community with no names, profiles or photographs.” When you make a post, it sends it to you and also to a select subset of your friends (i.e., your contacts), and possibly friends of those friends – all of whom (of course) must have the app (or they are not involved at all). The more people like it within the app, the further it will spread. More secrets are shown to a user when they have more friends (based on unique algorithms), with the primary goal being to ensure secrecy and prevent people from finding out who truly said what. According to the creators, “We built Secret for people to be themselves and share anything they’re thinking and feeling with their friends without judgment. We did this by eliminating profile photos and names and by putting the emphasis entirely on the words and images being shared. This way, people are free to express themselves without holding back.” They also mention that the anonymous nature of Secret allows for people to like, comment, and re-share other people’s posts that may be considered controversial, giving them the freedom to endorse anything without shame.
Similar to Secret is Whisper, which allows users to post anonymous confessions written on different images and is available for Android devices as well. Basically, you are asked to create a username and PIN, upload or select a picture from their vast library, add a custom filter, and then add custom text (whatever you want to whisper to the world). Then, you can decide to share your location, post it with hashtags to enable others to find it, and share it on other social media platforms. People who see it can like it and leave comments just like we’ve grown accustomed to on Facebook and Instagram, and can also share it across other platforms. Oh, and users can private message each other – which I think is an interesting feature which may provide the app with more “stickiness” and frequent usage than other apps. Whisper never knows who you are, doesn’t access your phone’s Contacts, and shows anonymous posts from all over the world (instead of just from your friends).
Anyway, in an effort to prevent bullying and “reduce negative comments,” Secret recently stated that it is “adding features that detect when people’s names are typed into in messages and warn those who would include them to think before they post.” Relatedly, Whisper’s CEO, Michael Heyward, stated that their app does not allow people to “use anonymity to hurt anyone else.” In other words, users are not permitted to use proper names in posts (unless they are names of public figures). So, for instance, “Justin Bieber is okay, but Justin from Spanish class is not. Whisper also employs 120 human moderators to comb through posts in real time” (see here for more information).
Anonymous confession posts can vary from sexual fantasies for another student, to a crush on someone, to revealing one’s sexual orientation or another thing that may often be stigmatized or judged. Other posts are cruel and hateful, and clearly represent cyberbullying:
Students do understand the negatives that arise when these sites are embraced within certain populations. One recently stated to the media that “they degrade people and make them feel unnecessarily bad about themselves.” But even so, confession pages have garnered tremendous popularity in some circles for the same reasons that other novel environments breed cyberbullying. As we know, people are “more likely to speak their mind” online if their “words can’t be traced back to them.” Furthermore, (and as Justin recently stated) teens are “hungry for an online environment where they can interact and communicate that is outside the prying eyes of parents.”
In terms of solutions, victims should always take the time to report these pages on Facebook or Twitter, as they violate their Terms of Service IF (and only if) what is being posted is harassing or threatening. To encourage this, you should remind teens that reporting a problematic account on Facebook or Twitter simply alerts the site to look into it and respond. It does not “out” the person reporting. To reiterate, when you follow the Report links on pieces of content provided by these companies in their site and app infrastructure, the person about whom you are reporting does not get any type of notification that you are the one who reported on them. While I don’t have any experience yet working with the creators of Secret and Whisper, I hope they will follow in the footsteps of Yik Yak and do what they can to combat harassment, threats, stalking, and hate speech because it is in their best interests to create a user community that flourishes in a healthy and functional way.
Schools which struggle with fallout from confession pages or apps must always remember that they can discipline students for their online expressions if it substantially interferes with the learning environment or infringes upon the rights of another student (to feel safe, comfortable, and supported at school). And while it may be difficult to discern the identity of who posted what, it’s not impossible since every posting has a digital footprint (which we will explain further in a future blog). We’ve fleshed out these clauses in great detail here and here, in case you need a refresher. With specific regard to Secret and Whisper (and current and future apps with similar feature-sets), it’s quite likely they will go the way of previous platforms like JuicyCampus.com and Formspring.me) because most eventually devolve into a “network full of lies and hate.” We just have to continue to educate teens to watch their words even when presented with a prime opportunity to be disrespectful or cruel towards someone else. These opportunities will often be turning points in their lives that dictate how they turn out. As such, taking the narrow road in spite of internal and external pressure to do otherwise is what they need to habituate now, so that it becomes their regular course of action during adulthood.
Outside of the cyberbullying issues, though, it’s important to discuss some of the positives of these environments when considering these environments. Not doing so is neglectful because the use of technology is always a double-edged sword. A DV High Confessions page administrator has commented that although Confession pages “stirred up drama,” they were a “great way for students to voice their thoughts and feelings,” because “these days, there’s a crazy amount of stress that just comes with being a teenager and in high school alone, so being anonymous makes it easier for people to express themselves.” And so it brings teens together to vent, commiserate, and find common ground in each other’s experiences, which reminds them that they are not alone and that their situation (as painful as it may be) is survivable.
It doesn’t happen every single time, but it does happen a lot: teens are not sociopaths, and have good hearts, and do take the time to reach out and extend kindness towards one another in this way. And it clearly matters and makes a difference. Perhaps similar to your own personal experiences growing up, I remember clearly how difficult adolescence was, and how at times I felt like the tornado of emotions and stress and insecurities and pain and pressure that swirled around me was going to swallow me whole. And I did have a couple of online pen-pals at that time to whom I felt free to pour out my heart and vulnerabilities in ways I would simply not feel comfortable expressing to my parents, or a school counselor, or even a friend in real life because words typed with my fingers flowed easily while words spoken from my mouth fumbled and sputtered and tripped on themselves as I tried to convey how I felt. And those people were kind to me. Having this outlet and connection helped me so much, just like it is helping so many teens right now. And that is the story with pretty much every technology.
I remain incredibly aware of, and sensitive to, the potential for cyberbullying with these pages and apps, but never want to dismiss an app outright until we have had time for its possibly positive uses to surface. As youth-serving adults, we need to constantly support positive, healthy, and healing self-expression online and offline, but still set and hold to a hard line on expressions that harm others. Education, awareness, reminders, consequences, empathy-building, and conflict resolution skills continue to be most important in combatting harassing and threatening speech made via technology or in the real world. Who knows how long Secret and Whisper and Confession pages on Facebook and Twitter will attract attention. And even when they lose their luster, there will always be other apps and even networks (e.g., Tor) that provide anonymous communications and functionality to users. As such, I’d rather we focus our efforts on building an ethical and character-based foundation for decision-making within our youth. This way, they ideally do the right thing irrespective of whether everyone is watching them or no one knows who they are.
Parenting Kids Today to Prevent Adult Bullying Tomorrow: Lessons from the Miami Dolphins bullying case
The independent investigation report into the Miami Dolphins’ bullying scandal was released today. I blogged about this story a couple of times last November because it really hit me deeply, because we care so much about the bullying problem, and because I’ve published a few academic articles on workplace harassment. I have previously discussed in detail the implications for society stemming from the situation, and also how the relevant institutions may have contributed to the problem.
The new report is pretty eye-opening. Here are the take-home points:
“The Report concludes that three starters on the Dolphins offensive line, Richie Incognito, John Jerry and Mike Pouncey, engaged in a pattern of harassment directed at not only Jonathan Martin, but also another young Dolphins offensive lineman and an assistant trainer. The Report finds that the assistant trainer repeatedly was the object of racial slurs and other racially derogatory language; that the other offensive lineman was subjected to homophobic name-calling and improper physical touching; and that Martin was taunted on a persistent basis with sexually explicit remarks about his sister and his mother and at times ridiculed with racial insults and other offensive comments.”
“The Report rejects any suggestion that Martin manufactured claims of abuse after the fact to cover up an impetuous decision to leave the team. Contemporaneous text messages that Martin sent to his parents and others months before he left the Dolphins—which have never before been made public—corroborate his account that the persistent harassment by his teammates caused him significant emotional distress. The Report concludes that the harassment by Martin’s teammates was a contributing factor in his decision to leave the team, but also finds that Martin’s teammates did not intend to drive Martin from the team or cause him lasting emotional injury.”
The report concludes with a call to action, asking the NFL to create new conduct guidelines to promote peer respect in that unique workplace environment. I am sure there is more that will still come out, but it seems like Jonathan Martin may have cause to file a harassment lawsuit against the Dolphins. And, more importantly, we have victimization that took place, and continued extensive fallout and negative press for the organization and the NFL.
Okay – how is this relevant to our focus on teens? All of this has inspired me to really try to think through the issues. One thing I’ve honed in on is why some children grow up to be bullies, and why some grow up to be bullied. Perhaps those victimized deal with it during adolescence and then continue to face it during adulthood, without ever really learning what to do in these situations, and without ever receiving the help and guidance they might need. Perhaps children on the receiving end turn into adults who dish it out later in life, once again because they weren’t shown or taught how to cope and respond. And perhaps mean kids just become mean grownups, and stay that way no matter what because they too never got what they needed to change.
We never really know all of the facts (in this case, or in any bullying case), and the situations tend to be complex and laden with emotion. We also know that there are no cure-alls – parents can only do so much, and then have to let go and have faith that things will work out. But if you are a parent, and don’t want your child or teen to eventually behave similarly to Richie Incognito as an adult, you should:
Remain calm. Nothing is going to work if you try to tackle this while internally or externally freaking out.
Cultivate empathy. Get them to understand that words wound, and if they don’t have something nice to say, they really (and frankly) should keep their mouth shut.
Identify their “sore spot” – where they are especially sensitive. Discuss with them how they would feel if someone made fun of them for that personally sensitive issue.
Help them to appreciate all differences (race, religion, sexual orientation, appearance, dress, personality, etc.) and never use them as a reason to exclude, reject, or embarrass another person.
Teach them that their way to be or act is not necessarily the right way. There often is no right way. People should be allowed to be people. People should be allowed to be who they are, whatever that is.
What may be a joke to them may actually be a cruel and hateful act to another. Everyone is wired differently; some can shrug off things easily, while others internalize them. This does not make them soft or weak. Personal traits perceived as a positive may be a negative in some situations, and vice versa.
Determine if they are dealing with any personal struggles which might be manifesting in harmful actions towards others.
The “birds of a feather” adage is typically true. Figure out if those with whom they hang out encourage or condone meanness and cruelty. Counter those messages as best as you can, with the help of others they look up to.
If you are a parent, and don’t want your child or teen to eventually behave similarly to Jonathan Martin as an adult, you should:
Remain calm. If you come to them all riled up and panicky, you’re not going to get through to them.
Teach them to never allow others to disrespect them or tear them down. They don’t have to subject themselves to that, even if it’s done in the name of “hazing” or forming a brotherhood or sisterhood.
Help them learn conflict resolution skills, as they may help diffuse small problems before they blow up.
Make sure they have multiple people they can always go to for help – someone who will definitely be their advocate and do everything possible to help them. Identify those individuals, and make sure they “check in” regularly to ensure your child or teen is doing okay.
Continually remain keyed in to their emotional and psychological health to detect warning signs that might point to struggles and issues that could benefit from professional help (counseling, etc.).
Be their biggest fan no matter what, and surround them with others who will pour into them and keep them encouraged in the midst of difficult life situations.
Immerse them in environments (inside or outside of school) among kids of character, where everyone stands up for each other and has each other’s backs.
These strategies won’t keep every kid from relational problems now or when they are grown up, but it will help them. Ideally, it will make them more emotionally healthy individuals who are less likely to be a jerk to others, who understand how they should and should not deal with conflict, and how to lean on others early on for support and assistance before situations get irreparably bad. The bottom line is that we have to be involved, and exercise due diligence now to prevent problems in the future. When you’re dealing with the messy fallout, you end up kicking yourself for not doing all you could to prevent it back when you had the chance. So start now – it’s totally worth it.
Photo illustration by Lisa Larson-Walker. Photos by Getty.