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.
Cyberbullying Prevention through Dance and the Spoken Word
As National Bullying Prevention Month rolls on, we continue to highlight extraordinary movements and projects designed to combat cruelty and rekindle kindness, tolerance, and respect. Today, I want to feature the efforts of MusEffect, a very talented dance company out of Los Angeles. I have been in touch with their director, Jessica Starr, because I was so inspired by the Public Service Announcement video she and her team dreamed up, choreographed, and organized against the powerful and passionate backdrop of spoken word poetry performed by Azure Antoinette. My attention was captured because 1) I had heard some of Azure’s work years ago 2) My sister and I grew up in dance and the performing arts 3) the storyline is compelling and leaves an impact after watching it with your full attention. To be honest, there are a lot of “meh” PSAs that have been created with the best of intentions, but fall short in stirring emotions and inciting action. And I’ve seen so many over the years. This one, on the other hand, stands apart like few that have gone before it. From our conversations, Jessica doesn’t just care about dance – she cares about social change and social responsibility, and above all else simply wants to make a difference. And that draws me towards their efforts all the more. Here are her thoughts:
As a company our number one purpose is to affect people. We don’t look at dance as merely a form of entertainment or art, but rather a way of moving people into action. When our audiences feel our work and relate to the subject at hand, we are creating a lasting impression on them – which leads to change. MusEffect’s mission is to use our art (which houses dance, spoken word and film) to bring awareness to some of the social causes that need it the most. Our hearts are huge and our dedication is real, and we are committed from the beginning to spread our work to the masses. We know that our intentions would be felt by the people who need to hear it the most.
We feel like cyberbullying is one of the least talked about but most harmful forms of bullying in today’s youth generation. So much of our self-worth is placed on how many people like your Instagram post, who accepts your friend requests, and who actually takes the time to comment on our pictures. We place far too much value on our relationships in cyberspace, and it has truly changed the way we interact with people face to face.
We think what we’ve done here really stands apart – and that was our goal. “Being unique” is challenging to achieve in today’s society. There are so many variations of expression and art that it is difficult to determine how you can be more original than the person next to you. However, MusEffect as a whole is SINCERE, and 100% authentically involved and invested in our work. The dancers of MusEffect are not just performing rehearsed movements; instead, they understand why they are doing it. As such, the intention of the piece takes first priority for us. I am confident THAT is what you feel when you see MusEffect perform as a group. Our hearts speak louder than our movement ever could.
It has been so wonderful to see how this project has brought our community together. Our group of artists is sincerely one of the most eclectic bunch of people I have ever known. We are all from different backgrounds, we look different, each have a different artistic style and focus, but we are ALL pulled together by one element, our heart to move people with our art. Building our resumes and receiving a pay check is NOT enough for us. So when the MusEffect dancers, our Muse Media team, and our resident poet Azure Antoinette get together, it is inevitably magic. Creating together for a cause will, without a doubt, strengthen our bond as a company and re-affirm why we make the day-to-day sacrifices that we do.
Now that this video is gaining traction across the nation and even world, we are using this specific month to really encourage action amongst our community and followers. Inspiring people to JUST talk about it will open opportunities for healing and growth. In addition to spreading the video to all who need to see it, we are going to host some face-to-face discussions with various youth groups. This will give them an opportunity to discuss the causes and effects of cyberbullying, and empower them to actively find solutions within their own community.
Here are some thoughts from some members of our community, which came together to create this vision and make it into a reality. In their words, you can hear how and why this matters so much to them. And because their hearts were so intimately involved in the process, I believe the final product shined.
Every time Jessica Starr comes to me with an idea, with a concept, I end up a changed human, a stretched writer, a gutted human. I have such a unique family. Personally, professionally. I am whatever is more elaborate than blessed, I am so much more than ‘lucky.’ That is for leprechauns and cartoons. I am rich, oil sultan rich. Thank you MusEffect – for redefining the human body and movement – what a phenomenal group of human beings you are. And what a brilliant answer to my prayer of always wanting to be surrounded by greatness. ~ Azure Antoinette, MusEffect resident poet
The focus of MusEffect is to bring to light all the topics that people are afraid to talk about, such as cyberbullying. The reason why society is scared of facing it head on is because we all contribute to the issue in one way or another. If we aren’t taking a physical stand against it, then we might as well be the bullies ourselves. ~ Matthew Fata, MusEffect dancer, 23
Being a dancer in the company, and having personally experienced being cyber bullied was, in this case, really helpful to me. I was able to tap into what it felt like to be the victim of something that happens to thousands of people all the time. I wouldn’t want what happened to me to happen to anyone. My intention during the piece was stronger because I was able to bring my personal connection to the issue. I wanted people to know that they aren’t alone and everyone should be aware of how much it really does happen and how much of a negative impact it has on people. ~ Sadie Posey, MusEffect dancer, 16
Having an 11-year-old grow up in this generation, it is very important for them to understand and grasp the concept of true reality vs. social media reality. In today’s world kids, are so wrapped up in getting attention via social media (i.e., likes, shares, etc.) it is important to remind them of true friendships. ~ Tanecia Wise – Mother of Taryn Bee, Mini Muse dancer, 11
This video gives parents, teachers, everyone a platform for discussion. A great reminder to all of how we treat everyone not only face to face but also via the Internet. ~ Alayna Jennings – MusEffect Dancer, 21
As a company, our goal is to interest and affect people through artistry and movement. We are taking entertainment to an entirely new level, and this is what makes MusEffect and this PSA so unique. A new angle, a new approach. We focus on many social issues and we walk into every project with the same attitude and belief: if we can instill change in even just one person, if we can affect one person, it is absolutely worth doing.
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
Combating Bullying During Kindness Week
In my line of work, I have the amazing opportunity to meet incredibly passionate educators who care so much about students – and do all they can to create and maintain positive climates in which those students can thrive. I’ve known Becky Nahrebeski, a 9th grade Global teacher, for a few years now, and finally had a chance to be a part of a Kindness Week she and her colleagues planned and put together in October. We are all about sharing success stories that encourage other administrators and teachers that bullying and cyberbullying can truly be combatted and addressed in creative and meaningful ways that make a real difference. It does take a lot of work, but it is so worth it when you get to see the results. I’ve asked Becky to share with our readers about the amazing things they’ve done (and are doing), and her thoughts are below:
Hamburg Central School District is a suburban district about 10 miles south of Buffalo, NY. We have a student body of roughly 3700 students K-12. We are a very high-achieving district. We are always ranked in the top 15 school districts for Western New York. We are ranked 81 in New York State and we are in the top 3% (ranked 682 out of 24,000) of schools nationwide and are a Silver Award winner according to U.S. News and World Report’s 2013 school rankings. We have amazing students that, after graduation, make us proud. We have dedicated teachers that love what they do. We have a supportive administration that has the best interest of the students at heart. We have fantastic parents that work with us and support us in any way they can. We have an unbelievable community that stands behind us and helps out wherever they can. Despite all of these fantastic parts working together, we still have students that hurt one another through bullying and cyberbullying.
We, as a district, refuse to ignore this issue. In our district, we have a DASA (Dignity for All Students) committee comprised of counselors, social workers, school psychologists, a teacher, and an administrator to deal specifically with bullying. This committee was started in preparation for the passage of New York State legislation (the DASA Act), and since 2011, we have been working on going through bullying reports to identify “hot spots” and determine our prevention efforts. We have attended countless conferences where we learn the latest research on what is happening. We educate parents, staff, students, and even our bus company on some of the best practices in bullying prevention. We meet monthly to stay on top of everything going on in the district.
One of our most esteemed achievements was the planning of an anti-bullying week for our district K-12. It was a massive undertaking, but well worth the hours we put in planning it. Our preparation leading up to this week included a contest entitled “Create a Culture of Kindness.” Students K-12 could enter the contest and compete in different categories. For example, they could write a poem, essay, or song. They could create an anti-bullying poster or public-service announcement video. The goal was for them to take their skillsets and talents and apply them to help transform our school communities by making it cool to care about others. The response we received was truly incredible. It is amazing how perceptive and intelligent our students are on the issue of bullying. It also became clear that it was an issue that our students cared deeply about, as was evident in some of their project submissions. We had well over 100 submissions and it was very emotional and difficult to choose our winners. If you ever are curious how deeply students care about the issue of bullying, put together a contest and you will see how affected your student population is.
Our week began on Monday with a staff meeting with Dr. Hinduja. He trained our staff and shared with us important information about school policy and the best prevention and response strategies that have evolved, and how all stakeholders must play a role. On Monday evening, we held a Youth Rally. We had all our contest entries displayed for everyone to see. We had vendor tables set up in our cafeteria for all to peruse. Attendees had an opportunity to create a link in our chain against bullying. Our band played, and our cheerleaders cheered, and it was a very festive and fun environment with snacks and beverages and a celebration of our students’ efforts! We announced all of our contest winners right at the beginning of the evening. Then we announced our guest speaker, Dr. Hinduja, who spoke to our attendees about technology and role of the parents in helping schools to combat the bullying/cyberbullying problem. He also allowed time for Q&A, which was really valuable to our parents.
On Tuesday, we started our day with a survey we gave to all of our students in grades 6-12. We wanted to make sure we could gauge how well all of our efforts were working throughout the course of this year. We plan on doing a post survey later this year to compare our data. All of the questions from our survey came from Dr. Hinduja’s book Bullying Beyond the Schoolyard. Then, Dr. Hinduja spoke to our middle school and high school students. He was dynamic and the kids really got a lot out of his presentation. He addressed everything from being smart online, protecting yourself by keeping your information locked down, and the impacts that bad decisions can have on your life. Students raved about how everything he discussed with them applies directly to them right now. They took a lot away from his presentation.
Students also watched the documentary “Bully.” This was a tremendous empathy-building opportunity. Students really got a strong message about not bullying and also to be a bystander that acts (upstander). They felt such sadness for the kids that were impacted by the bullying and many felt they would not allow something like that to occur in our schools. Students did debriefing activities for both of these activities where they had some discussion, some writing opportunities. They also made Sorry Slips, and participated in a Paperclip Pledge. A Sorry Slip is a slip of paper on which students can anonymously apologize for something they feel bad about. A Paperclip Pledge is where students vow to not bully, and to step in if someone is bullying. They get a paperclip with a ribbon and make a chain of paperclips, which then serves as a visual reminder of their promise. In all, it was a fantastic day.
On Wednesday, Dr. Hinduja, our high school drama club, and our DASA team traveled to all four of our elementary buildings. Dr. Hinduja spoke twice to each building to students grouped K-2 and again to students in grades 3-5. He was great even with these age groups and delivered a message that they related to. Opposite him, our HS drama club put on a performance of a skit they wrote and answered questions that they students had. Then each school had their own plan for the rest of the day. Throughout the rest of the week, our schools did follow-up activities that included pep rallies, classroom activities, and the hanging of visual reminders around the schools. One common thread in all of our elementary buildings was a Create a Culture of Kindness quilt. Each student created their own square by drawing or writing a message they got from the day. The squares were then put together to form quilts. It remains an awesome visual left over from our week.
The work in preparing for this week was intense, stressful, and at times, all-encompassing, but well worth every minute put into it. Our students raved about the week and asked that we “do stuff like that more often.” They made it clear that they don’t want our efforts to end there. As such, we have some follow-up activities loosely planned out for the spring. We are hoping to bring in a speaker for a one-hour assembly that can speak on the merits of being an upstander, and give our students some great ways to “step in” if they see an instance of bullying. We are also working on putting together a panel of students to share with our teachers what is really going on in our schools. We are also hoping to create a Public Service Announcement for our community. We have a lot of work ahead of us, but we remain inspired based on all of the progress we’ve made and interest we’ve received! In closing, I want to share the primary message we received from our students: they want to talk about these types of issues; they want to work with the adults in preventing instances of bullying!