Password Management Software for Teens
Think about how many times every day you use a password on a phone, computer, social media site, gaming network, or another online account. Passwords are a huge part of our daily lives. Technically, they serve as authentication to identify people as being who they claim to be. Correct authentication is supposed to prevent others from accessing or altering your personal data, so passwords should be kept very secure. Unfortunately, some people put themselves at risk of cyberbullying, identity theft, or other dangers by sharing or exposing their passwords. For instance, we’ve asked hundreds of groups of students if they know any of their friends’ passwords. The majority say ‘yes’ every single time!
I’d chosen to give my Facebook password to one of my “best friends.” She was friends with a girl who I’d been having some bullying problems with. One day my “friend” was at my enemy’s house and decided to get on my Facebook and delete all my pictures. Then they took a picture of this boy that I really liked and put it as my profile picture. They wrote all over my profile so all my friends saw it. It was really stupid, but it hurt me so badly.
~ 15 year-old girl from North Carolina
Maybe you would never share your passwords on purpose. However, you still might reveal them accidentally. A lot of people store and remember their passwords in ways that make it easy for others to find them. One person might leave her passwords on a sticky note next to her computer, or taped under her keyboard. Someone else might save them in a text file or Excel spreadsheet right on his computer’s desktop. Another person might even leave them in a small notebook that she carries around in her backpack or purse, or in the Notes app on her phone. It doesn’t take Sherlock Holmes to notice these sorts of things! And, not only are they easily discoverable, they are also easily lost or deleted.
Even if you’re careful about never putting your passwords in easy-to-find places, and even if you never share them with others, that doesn’t mean they’re completely safe. For example, some websites have security questions that let users retrieve forgotten passwords. If the user answers the questions correctly, he gets an email with a link to reset the password. Common password hint questions include “What is your pet’s name?” or “What is the first car you drove?” I know Justin’s pet’s names, and the first car he drove – and if I can get into his email account, I can consequently access a lot of his other information, too. And that might allow me to change passwords on his other online accounts— simply by having access to his email and knowing a few basic facts about him. Of course, I could also impersonate him, lock him out of his profiles, delete his carefully curated images and posts, or even do something criminal via his account. The possibilities are endless, and this can (and has) happened to many people.
Plus, some individuals tend to use the same password for multiple accounts— school and personal email, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Skype, eBay, PayPal, and more. That makes it easy to remember, but it also means that if someone finds out the password to a single account, he can then get into all the other ones, too. As such, it’s wise to have a different password for every site or account you use, and to keep track of all your passwords in a way that’s safe and secure, yet still convenient. We would therefore like to recommend some software solutions that will help you keep a tight leash on your private information. We’ve evaluated each of these password managers, and list out with the pros and cons below. Whichever method you use to keep track of your passwords, just make sure you figure out a solution that doesn’t leave you vulnerable to cyberbullying or other online risks.
How convenient would it be to only have to remember one master password that allowed you to safely use all of your favorite apps and sites without having to also remember the unique account information for all of them? LastPass allows you to securely browse the web, and log into all your favorite sites by only having to remember one master password, and the best part is the automatic form fill feature. This allows you to input all your personal information one time, and then it will remember everything for any future use. According to the LastPass website, we should be using passwords that look like “KQo=3oyB>VXG^-6.” With that being said, it is unrealistic for any of us – especially teenagers – to create and use ones like that because of their complexity and difficulty to remember them. LastPass, though, will generate all of these tedious but very secure passwords for all your different accounts, remember them, and populate the appropriate form fields with them at your online account sites. It can also import and use the login and password information you’ve already saved in your web browser.
Furthermore, LastPass provides a great feature called a “secure note” which allows you to keep everything from your social security number to your bank account information to your health insurance details, all sorted out in sections, but allowing you access them in one spot. It even allows you to attach pictures and videos, which is a great way to ensure that your private photos stay private even if someone else obtains access to your phone. LastPass offers different methods of overall security; one of my favorites is a fingerprint feature for unlocking your phone (regardless of its model or version). Other methods of screen unlocking are swiping, patterns, pins, and passwords. It also provides full Web-based access to all of your login and password data (encrypted, of course). LastPass offers a free 14-day trial, and then you have the option to sign up for a $1.00 monthly charge for unlimited premium access. The bottom line is that you can create an account with one password, and LastPass will do the rest. You can access your account on your mobile device, laptop, and desktop computers, as supported platforms include iPhone, Android, Linux, Windows, and Blackberry.
Dashlane is a product which also has the master password, auto form-fill, and digital wallet features like LastPass, but comes with a few notable features. First, it allows you to set an emergency contact who can have access to limited information of your choosing in case of some sort of emergency or death. It also allows you to record all of your online purchases by saving your receipts and any relevant screenshots you might want to include. In addition, Dashlane offers an automated password changer. We all know we are supposed to change our passwords regularly, but very few actually prioritize this task (don’t feel condemned, we understand! J). With the simple press of a button, Dashlane will recognize all your weak passwords and suggest a change. You then have the option to change one or multiple passwords at once. And again, the best part is that they can be convoluted and abstruse, but you don’t have to remember them as that is what the software does for you. Like LastPass, it creates and stores an encrypted backup of all of your login data in the cloud, and allows you to login and see it from any browser.
To increase the security of your account, you can also use two-factor authentication via Google Authenticator. Basically, this adds a layer of protection by validating devices that you seek to login with, and sends you a code via text to your verified smartphone – which you’ll need before you want to access Dashlane on any device. You might think this precautionary measure is overkill – but it is worth the extra ten seconds to receive and type in a code so that just knowing the master password won’t be enough.
Dashlane intuitively walks you through the app on your Android or Apple device, making it very user-friendly. You have unlimited, basic free access to this application and a 30 day premium trial. Dashlane is on the expensive side, but our priority is maximum security. For $39.99 a year for premium membership, you can feel safe when you access your bank account, when you go online shopping, and with their auto-login feature you will save a lot of time! The software even allows you to set an emergency contact, in case of any critical matter. This emergency contact then would have access to limited information of your choosing, should you die or be otherwise incapacitated. Another cool thing is that you can tie multiple pieces of the same type of personal information to one identity. For instance, you might want to have two phone numbers or two email addresses to one – it allows you to do that. Finally, Dashlane lets you keep a history of all your purchases by allowing you to screenshot online transactions and receipts. Dashlane currently supports PC, Mac, Android, and iOS devices.
The SplashID password manager is very elegant and user-friendly, and like the others stores your passwords, credit card information, and anything else you can think of inside of “Business” and “Personal” Categories. As silly as it may sound, you can even store size information for clothes, shoes, etc. (right now, I actually have size information in my Notes app for my home’s air conditioning filters, my car’s air filter, the ring sizes of loved ones, and so much more – and could use this app instead!) A downside to this app is the lack of auto-fill. For example, if I created an account with my basic contact information on it (like my first name, last name, address, city, state, zip code), it would not pre-populate the same fields on another site asking for the same information. I’d have to enter all of my details again. Like the aforementioned managers, SplashID offers strong password generation, and all you have to do is remember your master password. You are also provided with one master password hint, in case you forget it.
After installing this product, you have free access to basic protection, or for 19.99 a year you can use their Pro features, which gives you priority customer service 24/7 and the feedback on the latest security threats. Unlike many of the other password managers, SplashID automatically syncs all your information to the Cloud (automatic secure storage accessible through many devices). This app also has a very cool feature that I did not notice while using other password managers: if you are idle for any specified amount of time from your phone, the app automatically logs out. While evaluating the other programs, I definitely became aware that if I did not manually log out, the app remained open and therefore my private information was at risk if I left my phone somewhere. This app is accessible on iOS and Android devices, Blackberry, Windows Phone, webOS, and Palm OS smartphones, and there are also desktop versions for Macs and PCs.
RoboForm is also a solid choice as a password managers as it can help you generate and remember very strong credentials for all of your sites. I personally don’t think that it is as user-friendly, elegant, and visually attractive as SplashID, for instance, but it has all of the necessary features to store your login information and related notes, and you are able to save different identities for different websites. For example, you may have one profile saved with your credit card information for all of the sites at which you make purchases, and another identity for all other sites that do not ask for credit card information. This allows you to provide or automatically input the appropriate information at the proper online destination – not too much, and not too little – by simply selecting an identity. RoboForm – like Dashlane – also allows you to tie multiple pieces of the same type of contact information to a single identity if you wanted to do so (e.g., three street addresses to one profile).
Norton products are well-known and respected for their antivirus protection capabilities, and now has this new feature which you can download on your computers and phones for free, and use to securely store all your important personal information in one app. It also warns you of malicious sites that might compromise your identity and seeks to alert you if there are any rogue scripts or elements in place so that you don’t fall prey to “phishing” schemes (where the site seems legitimate but is actually fraudulent). This software is very user-friendly and simple to install and set up. You can import passwords stored in your browsers (but not from other password management applications you may have used in the past). Then, when you input your information in a new site, it does what all of the others do – saves it and subsequently fills in that information when you revisit that site in the future. Norton Identity Safe, like the others, offers syncing to the Cloud, but the software itself does not have a password generator to help you create stronger passwords. In addition, it performed less optimally than Dashlane or LastPass in storing all passwords I typed in, and populating all of the form fields at various sites. This program is available for Windows, Mac, Android, and iOS.
Password Genie provides you with all the basic essentials; auto-filling for forms, browser import, you can have access to your account in up to 5 devices with unlimited users, and if you can’t find a category to save your most important documents, you can add your own. Like all the other apps, you have to create a master password, and as you are creating it Password Genie will let you know how secure your password is and advise you to make it stronger if necessary. It also recognizes whenever you input updated information at various sites, and consequently updates its own database. It also deserves comment that this product does a better job than others on unusual login situations (for instance, my bank has a two-page SiteKey system which it could handle).
Another useful feature if you ever get into a pinch is that Password Genie offers live chat help, and remote viewing and access for the desktop version. The remote viewing and access allows the support agent to access your computer as if they were in front of it themselves to investigate any problem the program might have. The software does not, however, import passwords and content from other management programs (although it does allow you to do so from browsers when you install it). Plus, you can store various kinds of personal information in it – but it does not then take that information and use it to populate form fields on various sites. Rather, it only acts like a glorified vault (and for that purpose, I’d rather just use my Notes app on my phone). Password Genie is now available on Android, Mac, and Window devices. Basic free access is available, and it provides an option to upgrade to a premium version for $11.99 a year.
So – what should you use? Here are my recommendations, in order of preference: LastPass, Dashlane, Roboform, SplashID, Norton Identity Safe, and Password Genie. The top two are the best, in my opinion, because they do everything you’d want them to do and their software versions keeps getting better in meaningful ways (such as adding fingerprint authentication!). LastPass is comprehensive and outstanding in its feature-set and perfect for power-users who want customization and flexibility. Dashlane does pretty much everything LastPass does, but is a bit more attractive and user-friendly (at the cost of flexibility). You should pick one of those.
A final caveat: In addition to using a password manager, don’t forget to change your password regularly. No matter how unusual and hard to guess, it could be compromised without you even knowing it. Sometimes hackers access passwords by finding security holes in databases for popular websites and online stores. Once a cyberbully or hacker has gotten to your password, he might also be able to find your name, email address, and other personal information which could then be used to steal your identity. Sometimes the companies or websites themselves don’t even know that the information has been stolen until weeks or months later. So it’s best to change your password at least once a year. Pick a time of year that will remind you to make the switch. Get in the habit of changing your passwords at the start of each school year, on your birthday, or on some other memorable date. Just make sure you don’t let passwords get stale! As they say, forewarned is forearmed – and using a software-based manager will definitely reduce your vulnerability to victimization, and all of the stress, headaches, and heartache that goes with it. And encourage your students to do so when you see them at the beginning of this school year. It might take a few minutes to set up (like anything worth doing!), and you won’t regret doing it but will regret not heeding this advice.
Image Source: http://www.ecloudtimes.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/01/password-manager-windows-top.png
Speaking to Teens at Parochial Schools about Bullying
Apart from our efforts within various public schools around the nation, Justin and I also work regularly with parochial schools as they attempt to reduce bullying and encourage kindness across their campuses. This gives us a chance to really connect with the youth there in a powerful way by dovetailing their faith with a call for God-honoring behavior – both offline and online. As a Christian, I find these opportunities very rewarding, and I thought it would be good to share something I’ve presented and discussed with high school kids from one of the Catholic Dioceses we work with. Perhaps it can be used to stimulate conversation in other parochial or youth-group settings.
You’re a teenager. You seek to live a life that honors the Lord. And so you know you shouldn’t bully others. If you were asked to give a scriptural reason for why you shouldn’t make fun of, mistreat, embarrass, or threaten someone else – certain verses might come to mind. You might recall how Jesus talked about loving your neighbor as you love yourself, or the Golden Rule from His Sermon on the Mount. You might remember how He talked about turning the other cheek. Maybe you’ll even think about how He talked about how hating someone (or demonstrating hate towards someone) is like murdering them. I know it is such a dramatic comparison, but that is what He said.
The thing is, you know you shouldn’t be a jerk to others – in person, or behind their back at school, or on Instagram or Twitter or YouTube, or while texting your friends. But many of us still do it. Growing up, we care a lot about what our friends and peers think about us, and we care a lot about “saving face” and having as many people as possible like us and being at least somewhat popular…or, at least, definitely not unpopular. And even though we know we should mostly only care about what God thinks about us, and what God has said about us – we still angle and jockey and compete for higher positions and statuses on the social ladder in our schools and peer groups. I mean, it’s natural (and desirable!) for us to gravitate towards the popular and attractive and admired, and dissociate ourselves (intentionally or indirectly) from others that are different, or excluded, or otherwise less well-liked.
Maybe we wish we weren’t like that, but that’s just how it seems to be – in middle school, in high school, and even in some parts of adulthood. We pretty much do all that we can not to be the ones at the bottom of the social ladder. That can’t be us. It feels like we won’t be able to live, we won’t be able to breathe if that were us (as one of my favorite authors, Donald Miller, has said). And so we make sure that it just doesn’t come to that – and we do whatever it takes. Some of these ways are exhausting, and some of them are manipulative, and some of them feel empty and futile but we do them anyway. And some of it definitely involves being mean to others – to make us feel better, to stay at least one rung above someone else on that social ladder, to join in with our friends, or for a variety of other not-so-great reasons.
One of my favorite sections of the Bible is from 1 Peter 3:10-12, where Peter quotes David’s words from Psalm 34. It reads:
For, “Whoever would love life and see good days must keep his tongue from evil and his lips from deceitful speech. He must turn from evil and do good; he must seek peace and pursue it. For the eyes of the LORD are on the righteous and his ears are attentive to their prayer, but the face of the LORD is against those who do evil.”
I think that out of all that’s in the Bible, this is what personally motivates me the most to never ever be a jerk to another person. Why? Well, let’s break it down.
I really want to love life. And I really want to see good days. All the time, if possible! And I desperately need His eyes on me, and for Him to listen hard for and respond to my prayers. I mean, who doesn’t need that! But it’s presumptuous for me to think that God is some type of glorified vending machine in the sky, dispensing blessings whenever I ask for them, and that I don’t have any role to play in it.
Apparently, I do have a role to play. I am specifically told here not to mess around with impure or unholy or deceitful things coming out of my mouth. I think if Peter and David were raised in the Information Age, they would probably have mentioned the other (more?) popular form of communication in our 21st century – typing and texting. The words that come forth from my mouth, or come forth through my fingers all spring from my heart. And I know I so want my heart to be in the right place when it comes to my relationship with the Lord, and my relationship with others. Deep down, I know what that “right place” feels like. It feels right in my heart when I am doing what the next two verses say – turning from evil and doing good, seeking peace and pursuing it, working towards righteousness (right living). Actually, it feels amazing when I am there, and when I stay there. It feels like, wow, this is exactly where I am supposed to be.
We are always looking for the best ways to live, for direction and guidance that might bring blessings into our life, and for God to keep watch and protect us and take care of us. Peter and David, led by the Holy Spirit, very clearly lay out what we need to do for that to happen. And it helps to remind me that I just cannot be involved in bullying or cyberbullying because it is sin, and it separates me from God. And I can’t have any separation between God and myself if I want to experience His closeness, and be confident that He hears me and delights in the way I am trying to live. Plus, I know that it really messes up my heart. And I just can’t have that.
When the opportunity arises to mistreat someone else, either at school or in cyberspace, I want to encourage you to remember that we just can’t be doing that sort of thing if we want to love life, see good days, and honor our God. I mean, that’s the bottom line. If that’s what you want, do not be mean to others. Do not be that person. It is not worth it, and it never makes the situation – or the state of your heart – better. Instead, pray about the situation and for the other person, and try to get some well-balanced and mature advice from friends and adults in your life. People can help you respond to the conflict or issue that is at the root of it all – whether it is your own problem or someone else’s. Give those people a chance to help you resolve whatever is going on in a positive manner. If you don’t know where to turn, or what to do, let us know – and we’ll do all we can to help.
Setting up a Free Bullying and Cyberbullying Reporting System with Google Voice
I have written in the past on anonymous reporting systems in schools, and I strongly advocate for them whenever I have the opportunity to speak to educators on how they should prevent cyberbullying. Based on your own observations, I am sure you’d agree with me that youth are way more comfortable texting/typing – especially when it relates to giving emotionally-laden statements or sharing stories of a sensitive or delicate nature to an adult (such as a teacher, counselor, or administrator). Not only do these systems cater to the preferred method of communication for kids, they also offer confidentiality to the person providing the report. Furthermore, they help to empower youth to be agents of change and step up for themselves or for others who are being victimized. Finally, they allow for real-time reporting, can alert you to minor situations before they become major, and can provide a tangible “paper trail” of documentation for each and every issue that is made known.
Before I continue, I want to make a very important point. Schools sometimes are hesitant to set up these systems because they are concerned about false positives. They assume that students are just going to screw around with the system and make all sorts of ridiculous, juvenile reports and waste everyone’s time. They even wonder if some students will attempt to bully others by reporting them as an aggressor. Those are legitimate possibilities, but they are largely unfounded. Every school we have worked with that has implemented these systems has said that yes, they might receive a few insincere reports a year, but the vast majority are legitimate and provide extremely helpful information to consider. The bottom line is that using these systems allow students to be the eyes and ears out there in the school community to keep educators in the loop about issues they really must know. And getting in front of these issues – or incendiary sparks, if you will pardon the metaphor – can definitely keep them from flaring up into a blazing inferno of sorts.
Second, whenever I spend time with youth at schools, I am reminded that they honestly do want to speak up. They do. The problem is, they just don’t know how to do so safely and in a way that feels comfortable for them. And, they are concerned about the possible fallout from doing so (being found out, labeled a tattletale, targeted with retaliation). It is up to schools, then, to create and provide safe mechanisms for reporting, and to have policies and procedures in place to reduce as much as possible the potential for that fallout.
There are a number of commercial services to which school districts can subscribe that provide this functionality. Some are fantastic, well-developed, and even provide more advanced features – and therefore are worth checking out. However, since many school districts cannot afford to subscribe to a commercial service, or may want a solution with a smaller footprint, I wanted to share how they might provide a similar tool to their school community through Google Voice at no cost. I believe it does a great job of what we would want it to do: to field private reports from the student body to alert the school about situations they should investigate.
How it Works
The system is built around a main phone number created through a new Google Voice account and then shared with the entire student body as a tipline or report-line. The system then disseminates the student voicemails (rare) and texts (frequent) to school personnel such as the assistant principal, the counselor, or the school police officer for investigation and follow-up. Voicemails can be sent as a sound file or even transcribed into text, and then emailed to a specified address. Texts can be forwarded to a specific email (or multiple emails) as well.
All point people (administrators, law enforcement, etc.) who want to access the tip line will have to download the Google Voice App to their phone or tablet (Android or iOS devices). Once the app is downloaded, they must configure it congruent with the settings of the how the Google Voice tipline was set up (e.g., input the same login and password used to create the tipline in the first place). Once the app is set up, that point person can respond to texts and calls from tipsters from within the app, and only the tipline number will be displayed on outgoing texts (as opposed to the point person’s actual phone number). This is critical, because it maintains the confidentiality and privacy of the administrators and law enforcement who respond to tips from their personal devices.
Who Responds to Tips?
Typically, each school should assign a point person to deal with the reports as they come in. Specific responses can be based on offense seriousness; most are addressable by intervention from an administrator or counselor. However, if the matter is more serious (e.g., involves threats, sexually-explicit pictures of minors, coercion or blackmail, or viable evidence of other criminal activity) the school police officer or local law enforcement department should be notified to intercede.
What Should Be Reported?
In discussing the reporting system with students, it should be stressed that no issue is too small. We want students to use them extensively and to let the school know if there is anything amiss that should be investigated. Of course, schools should clearly convey that that actual emergencies should be reported to the police via 911 or another method. While the purpose here is to encourage its use when bullying or cyberbullying is involved, schools should welcome kids keeping them in the loop whenever they notice, witness, or otherwise become aware of:
- Abuse at home (or elsewhere)
- Concerns about a fellow student (self-harm, suicidal ideation, etc.)
- Criminal activity (drugs, extortion, theft, vandalism, rape, etc.)
- General threats to campus safety or the campus environment
Is the System Truly Anonymous?
In a word, no. Anyone who calls or texts the tipline will have their phone number recorded. Typically, though, if the tipster does not want to reveal their identity, it is difficult to know who is behind the tip because the school doesn’t readily have a database of student cell phone numbers to cross-reference (schools typically only have a database of the parent/guardian contact information on file for each student). Googling the phone number also rarely reveals any identifying information unless the student has posted his or her cell phone across the Web and publicly-accessible social media pages. As such, there is definitely a strong measure of privacy in the system.
Other points to remember
- When responding to students tips via text, be sure to sign your name. Remember, they will not be able to see your actual phone number but instead will see the phone number of the tipline.
- The school, when responding, should always thank the tipster for the information, commend them for caring about the safety of their community, and remind him or her that it will be kept confidential.
- Because of FERPA rules, schools should not voluntarily disclose information about certain students in their text interactions with the tipster (e.g., names, personal histories, etc.).
- Always keep all interactions formal and professional, as they may serve as documentation in a case file or even court proceedings in the future. A school’s point person should never be casual in their texts through this system, even though it is a medium with which we all are extremely comfortable.
- There can also be follow-up dialogue via text in this process, as the school may request more information from the tipster or the tipster desire to share more information with the school.
- Students should be reminded that the system should not be abused. They should know this anyway, but sometimes it still needs to be articulated.
In sum, we strongly believe that every school should have a system in place that allows students who experience or observe bullying or cyberbullying (or any inappropriate behavior) to report it in as confidential a manner as possible. It seems obvious that we should be using mediums that youth already prefer. In addition, being able to broach the subject without being forced to reveal one’s identity or do it face-to-face may prove valuable in alerting faculty and staff to harmful student experiences, and help promote an informed response to bring positive change. Just make sure that students know about the system (use posters, messaging strategies, and other creative ways to get it out there!) and try to overcome any qualms they might have about using it.
Finally, please remember that if you decide to provide such a resource to your school community, every complaint should be taken seriously and thoroughly investigated. Since the use of this system does provide the paper trail I talked about earlier, it’s best to make sure you’ve done your due diligence with all reports to avoid any claims of liability or negligence. If the school responds promptly, and if it is a good experience for the student providing the tip, he or she will let other students know – and the system will be used more. Even better, the student body will be reminded that the school truly cares about them and is implementing progressive measures to make that clear.
Here is our step-by-step guide in PDF format to walk educators through the process of setting up a Bullying and Cyberbullying Reporting System with Google Voice.
Cell Phone Safety: Top Ten Tips for Teens
By Sameer Hinduja and Justin W. Patchin
This Top Ten List specifies what teenagers need to keep in mind as they use cell phones at home, at school, and in vehicles.
Hinduja, S. & Patchin, J.W. (2015). Cell phone safety: Top ten tips for teens. Cyberbullying Research Center. Retrieved [insert date], from http://www.cyberbullying.us/Top-Ten-Teen-Tips-Cell-Phones.pdf
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!