Chances are, Your Teen has NOT Sexted
Despite a recent headline announcing the opposite, most teens do not sext. Kelly Wallace wrote an article for CNN back in November which was updated and reposted last week. Most of the content of the article is accurate, and I certainly appreciate that she referred to published research and interviewed people who know what they are talking about when it comes to issues involving teens and technology. The primary problem I have with the article, is the headline: “Chances are, your teen has sexted.”
This broad proclamation is based on a study involving a small sample (175) of undergraduate students from one university in the northeastern United States. Respondents were asked in an anonymous online survey whether they had, as minors, sent sexually explicit messages to others. More than half admitted that they had, leading to the conclusion, and corresponding headline, that the majority of teens sext. But is this assertion accurate?
What Exactly is Sexting?
We define sexting as “the sending or receiving of sexually-explicit or sexually-suggestive nude or semi-nude images or video” (generally via a cell phone or other mobile device). Others have characterized it as “…the creating, sharing, and forwarding of sexually suggestive nude or nearly nude images by minor teens.” Still others prefer to focus on “youth produced sexual images.” Most commonly, the term is used to describe incidents where teenagers take nude or partially nude (e.g., topless) pictures of themselves and distribute those images to others using their cell phones (although it is also possible to distribute such images via social networking sites and apps, email, instant messaging programs, and video chat). Usually the pictures are sent to significant others, but sometimes teens send them to those with whom they are romantically interested.
How Many Teens are “Doing It”?
What little research that has been done on sexting shows that a minority of youth are participating. We first summarized this research back in 2010. Back then, only a few studies had been done, but among those that had, between 4 and 19% of respondents had admitted to sending a sexually explicit image of themselves to others. In our own study, with data collected in 2010 from a random sample of over 4,000 middle and high school students, we found that 7.7% of students had sent a naked or semi-naked image of themselves to others.
Since our original review, a few new papers have been published. Based on a nationally representative sample of 1,560 students between the ages of 10 and 17, Kimberly Mitchell and her colleagues found that less than 10% of youth “reported appearing in or creating nude or nearly nude images or receiving such images in the past year.” Donald Strassberg and his associates found that less than 20% of the students from one private school in the southwestern United States had ever sent a “sexually explicit picture of themselves” via cell phone. Finally, Jeff Temple and HyeJeong Choi found that 28% of the students surveyed from 5 Houston area public schools had “sent naked pictures of [themselves] to another through text or email.” I wrote about this particular study in detail back in 2012 because the prevalence rate was so much higher than all of the other research we were aware of.
Even the study referred to in the CNN article pegs the prevalence rate of sending explicit images at 28% (the same as the Houston study). While this is on the higher end of the rates reported in the literature, it still means that the vast majority—over 70%—of students have not sent naked images of themselves to others. It’s actually more likely that your teen has had sex the old fashioned way (nearly half have, prior to graduation from high school) than sent a sexually explicit image to someone else.
The grossly misleading headline is based on the percent of university students (about 50%) who acknowledged that they had sent either an explicit image or an explicit text (without an image) as a minor. Restricting the definition of sexting to refer only to those messages that included an image (as most do) brings the number down to 28% (which is probably more valid). There is a big difference between sending a risqué text message and sending a sexually explicit image. It is like asking a sample of students if they have ever robbed a bank at gunpoint or shoplifted from the local market, and then treating those who had done either as the same (both are thieves!). There are very different legal and social consequences for such behaviors. To presume they are comparable, misrepresents the problem.
Teens’ Experiences with Sexting and its Consequences
While I agree with Diana Graber (who is quoted in Wallace’s article for CNN) when she asserts that teens have historically been clueless when it comes to the potential consequences of sexting (such as criminal prosecution), I do believe that they are increasingly listening and learning. More and more teens I communicate with understand the risks, and for those few who choose to engage in sexting, it is a somewhat calculated decision based on the (probably accurately) belief that the risks to them are less for sexting than for engaging in sex. They are not going to get pregnant or catch any one of the many scary sexually-transmitted diseases that has been grilled into their heads in Health Class. And even though there are hazards with sexting, odds are pretty high that they will not get caught or formally punished. Adults who continually preach to youth that they will be are not being genuine, and teens will quickly dismiss their perspective when their personal experiences contradict that which is being threatened. That is, if one out of every four of my friends is doing this, and none has been caught, punished, or prosecuted, what do I have to worry about?
I do disagree, however, with Graber (who runs cyberwise.org, a website with great information to help adults get up to speed about technology issues) when she asserts in the CNN article that sexting is “very normal teenage behavior.” It is not normal, even if it is more common than most parents think. And it does a disservice to teens to tell them that it is. The proliferation of these misperceptions – created and perpetuated by the social group, popular media, and culture – can normalize the behaviors and even attract more participants, eventually leading to the behavior taking on a life of its own. Telling teens that “everyone is doing it” legitimizes the behavior and may erode any apprehensiveness they may have had about doing it.
Have the Talk
It is true that a wider swath of students is involved in these behaviors than was commonly assumed. Sexting isn’t just something done by at-risk teens with care-free sexual attitudes who have nothing to lose. And just because your child probably hasn’t sexted, doesn’t mean this is an issue you can avoid discussing with them. We need to give youth all the information we can to ensure that they will choose not to engage in sexting. Or at least if they decide to do it, they shouldn’t be surprised if something bad happens to them as a result. Explain to them that these images could be exposed to others or even posted online for all to see (even when sent using apps that purport to be private). Tell them that some students do get into very serious legal trouble, because technically, creating, possessing, or distributing explicit images of minors is a crime. Encourage them to explore their sexuality in healthy—and private—ways. Armed with accurate information about the nature and extent of the behavior, and the potential consequences, families can work together to ensure the responsible use of technology within a romantic relationship.
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.
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).
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.