Smart Social Networking: Fifteen Tips for Teens
By Sameer Hinduja and Justin W. Patchin
Don’t let your social media use negatively affect your life. Follow these simple strategies and avoid problems later!
Hinduja, S. & Patchin, J. W. (2014). Smart social networking: Fifteen tips for teens. Cyberbullying Research Center. Retrieved [insert date], from http://www.cyberbullying.us/smart_social_networking.pdf
Anonymous Postings on Confession Pages, Secret, and Whisper
What many adults don’t understand, they freak out about. Especially as it relates to teens. I’m generalizing here, but you know what I mean – we really don’t want the youth we care for to be having secrets, telling secrets, and keeping secrets away from us. Because we don’t fully trust them, either due to past experiences or due to messages from current events and the popular media. Well, in this environment we have seen the increasing popularity and notoriety of online mediums and platforms over which teens (and adults) can anonymously say whatever they want to those around them (see Justin’s post on Yik Yak) or to a larger social grouping. And it’s worth taking some time to discuss these, so that we know fact from fiction and don’t overreact.
To begin, Confessions sites on social media have received some attention in the press over the last year, and here at the Cyberbullying Research Center we continue to regularly hear about the experiences of teens on Facebook- and Twitter-based pages. . Confession pages allow anyone to share personal secrets, rumors, gossip, and anything else they might want others to know about but are hesitant to post publicly or in a way that is tied to their identity. And, of course, everyone who knows about the page (in a community, or school or other organization) can “like” it and thereby can stay in the loop by receiving its updates in their either in their News Feed or via the Twitter account they are following. At this point, they can then participate as a voyeur, or more actively by liking, commenting on, or sharing specific confessions.
As an example of how it works on, say, Facebook, a user first creates a “Fan” page (meaning, a page that represents a group or brand or entity, instead of a “Profile” page for themselves. Facebook does not require creators of “pages” to reveal their identity. Visitors can then send private messages to the page with specific confessions, and the administrator of the page then posts them publicly to the Wall for all “followers” to see. Another way to keep posts anonymous is to create an email account specifically to receive confessions from others, or set up a form via free online tools such as Google Docs (or Survey Monkey, or even an Ask.fm page). Then, “confessors” can clink on a link, open up the form, share their confession without giving any identifying information, and click “send.” The person behind it all then receives these anonymous confessions via email, and then can post them for all to see.
Outside of using Facebook or Twitter, other confessional platforms for smartphones have recently gained traction. Secret is a new app that recently came out for iOS (Apple) users only and has been described as an anonymous “community with no names, profiles or photographs.” When you make a post, it sends it to you and also to a select subset of your friends (i.e., your contacts), and possibly friends of those friends – all of whom (of course) must have the app (or they are not involved at all). The more people like it within the app, the further it will spread. More secrets are shown to a user when they have more friends (based on unique algorithms), with the primary goal being to ensure secrecy and prevent people from finding out who truly said what. According to the creators, “We built Secret for people to be themselves and share anything they’re thinking and feeling with their friends without judgment. We did this by eliminating profile photos and names and by putting the emphasis entirely on the words and images being shared. This way, people are free to express themselves without holding back.” They also mention that the anonymous nature of Secret allows for people to like, comment, and re-share other people’s posts that may be considered controversial, giving them the freedom to endorse anything without shame.
Similar to Secret is Whisper, which allows users to post anonymous confessions written on different images and is available for Android devices as well. Basically, you are asked to create a username and PIN, upload or select a picture from their vast library, add a custom filter, and then add custom text (whatever you want to whisper to the world). Then, you can decide to share your location, post it with hashtags to enable others to find it, and share it on other social media platforms. People who see it can like it and leave comments just like we’ve grown accustomed to on Facebook and Instagram, and can also share it across other platforms. Oh, and users can private message each other – which I think is an interesting feature which may provide the app with more “stickiness” and frequent usage than other apps. Whisper never knows who you are, doesn’t access your phone’s Contacts, and shows anonymous posts from all over the world (instead of just from your friends).
Anyway, in an effort to prevent bullying and “reduce negative comments,” Secret recently stated that it is “adding features that detect when people’s names are typed into in messages and warn those who would include them to think before they post.” Relatedly, Whisper’s CEO, Michael Heyward, stated that their app does not allow people to “use anonymity to hurt anyone else.” In other words, users are not permitted to use proper names in posts (unless they are names of public figures). So, for instance, “Justin Bieber is okay, but Justin from Spanish class is not. Whisper also employs 120 human moderators to comb through posts in real time” (see here for more information).
Anonymous confession posts can vary from sexual fantasies for another student, to a crush on someone, to revealing one’s sexual orientation or another thing that may often be stigmatized or judged. Other posts are cruel and hateful, and clearly represent cyberbullying:
Students do understand the negatives that arise when these sites are embraced within certain populations. One recently stated to the media that “they degrade people and make them feel unnecessarily bad about themselves.” But even so, confession pages have garnered tremendous popularity in some circles for the same reasons that other novel environments breed cyberbullying. As we know, people are “more likely to speak their mind” online if their “words can’t be traced back to them.” Furthermore, (and as Justin recently stated) teens are “hungry for an online environment where they can interact and communicate that is outside the prying eyes of parents.”
In terms of solutions, victims should always take the time to report these pages on Facebook or Twitter, as they violate their Terms of Service IF (and only if) what is being posted is harassing or threatening. To encourage this, you should remind teens that reporting a problematic account on Facebook or Twitter simply alerts the site to look into it and respond. It does not “out” the person reporting. To reiterate, when you follow the Report links on pieces of content provided by these companies in their site and app infrastructure, the person about whom you are reporting does not get any type of notification that you are the one who reported on them. While I don’t have any experience yet working with the creators of Secret and Whisper, I hope they will follow in the footsteps of Yik Yak and do what they can to combat harassment, threats, stalking, and hate speech because it is in their best interests to create a user community that flourishes in a healthy and functional way.
Schools which struggle with fallout from confession pages or apps must always remember that they can discipline students for their online expressions if it substantially interferes with the learning environment or infringes upon the rights of another student (to feel safe, comfortable, and supported at school). And while it may be difficult to discern the identity of who posted what, it’s not impossible since every posting has a digital footprint (which we will explain further in a future blog). We’ve fleshed out these clauses in great detail here and here, in case you need a refresher. With specific regard to Secret and Whisper (and current and future apps with similar feature-sets), it’s quite likely they will go the way of previous platforms like JuicyCampus.com and Formspring.me) because most eventually devolve into a “network full of lies and hate.” We just have to continue to educate teens to watch their words even when presented with a prime opportunity to be disrespectful or cruel towards someone else. These opportunities will often be turning points in their lives that dictate how they turn out. As such, taking the narrow road in spite of internal and external pressure to do otherwise is what they need to habituate now, so that it becomes their regular course of action during adulthood.
Outside of the cyberbullying issues, though, it’s important to discuss some of the positives of these environments when considering these environments. Not doing so is neglectful because the use of technology is always a double-edged sword. A DV High Confessions page administrator has commented that although Confession pages “stirred up drama,” they were a “great way for students to voice their thoughts and feelings,” because “these days, there’s a crazy amount of stress that just comes with being a teenager and in high school alone, so being anonymous makes it easier for people to express themselves.” And so it brings teens together to vent, commiserate, and find common ground in each other’s experiences, which reminds them that they are not alone and that their situation (as painful as it may be) is survivable.
It doesn’t happen every single time, but it does happen a lot: teens are not sociopaths, and have good hearts, and do take the time to reach out and extend kindness towards one another in this way. And it clearly matters and makes a difference. Perhaps similar to your own personal experiences growing up, I remember clearly how difficult adolescence was, and how at times I felt like the tornado of emotions and stress and insecurities and pain and pressure that swirled around me was going to swallow me whole. And I did have a couple of online pen-pals at that time to whom I felt free to pour out my heart and vulnerabilities in ways I would simply not feel comfortable expressing to my parents, or a school counselor, or even a friend in real life because words typed with my fingers flowed easily while words spoken from my mouth fumbled and sputtered and tripped on themselves as I tried to convey how I felt. And those people were kind to me. Having this outlet and connection helped me so much, just like it is helping so many teens right now. And that is the story with pretty much every technology.
I remain incredibly aware of, and sensitive to, the potential for cyberbullying with these pages and apps, but never want to dismiss an app outright until we have had time for its possibly positive uses to surface. As youth-serving adults, we need to constantly support positive, healthy, and healing self-expression online and offline, but still set and hold to a hard line on expressions that harm others. Education, awareness, reminders, consequences, empathy-building, and conflict resolution skills continue to be most important in combatting harassing and threatening speech made via technology or in the real world. Who knows how long Secret and Whisper and Confession pages on Facebook and Twitter will attract attention. And even when they lose their luster, there will always be other apps and even networks (e.g., Tor) that provide anonymous communications and functionality to users. As such, I’d rather we focus our efforts on building an ethical and character-based foundation for decision-making within our youth. This way, they ideally do the right thing irrespective of whether everyone is watching them or no one knows who they are.
Teacher shames student in classroom after student bullies teacher on Twitter
Recently, a female student in Northern Mexico posted very offensive comments about her teacher – Ms. Idalia Hernandez Ramos – on Twitter. These included referring to her as a “whore” and a “bitch,” and defaming her in other hurtful and insulting ways. At best, the behavior is a youthful indiscretion that unfortunately hurts the feelings of an innocent person. At worst, it was a very cruel and painful act of harassment which could leave serious emotional and psychological wounds, apart from severely damaging the teacher’s reputation now and in the future. According to how we define it, it would be considered “cyberbullying.”
Most of us likely wouldn’t have heard about this case if not for a video uploaded to YouTube documenting what seems to be a typical classroom scene. In this video, Ms. Hernandez Ramos is teaching her class and covering material that interestingly, (and not coincidentally, we find out) relates to social media etiquette and digital citizenship. At one point, she singles out a female student and engages her in healthy dialogue about how online hate and bullying is extremely harmful, and can destroy the image of the person being targeted – and how teens can suffer legal consequences for their postings. And then, suddenly, the dialogue turns into an inquisition of sorts, as the teacher confronts the student about what she posted, and asks her why she would do such a thing.
At this point, the student is emotional after being called out in front of her classmates. She admits her role as the author of the hateful tweet, saying she was upset when she wrote it. Ms. Hernandez Ramos then remarks how she too is upset, and that so many others have seen the tweet, and that damage has been done. She then demands an apology from the student (and another student who shared the tweet with others) and states she will not allow “young brats” to call her that.
The epilogue of this story is that the student was suspended for two weeks, and the teacher has been placed on classroom leave while authorities determine whether she should lose her job. Overall, the case can serve an instructional lesson as we continue to wrestle with novel problems that arise from the misuse of technology in our everyday lives.
Harm is Harm No Matter Who is Involved
I am glad we are sensitive to the student’s humiliation and shame. However, we need to be equally sensitive to the teacher’s humiliation and shame as well. She was victimized. The worth of one’s dignity should not be on a sliding scale depending on how old you are. Furthermore, it does warrant defending. I would speak up and defend myself if ever bullied, harassed, embarrassed, threatened, or otherwise mistreated. Doing so must always be encouraged among everyone – but it should be done through the proper channels and in the proper environment.
It is good that the teacher confronted the student about her poor judgment and harmful online speech. But it is not good that the teacher publicly shamed the student in front of her peers. To be sure, the teacher herself was publicly shamed. However, we must hold adults in supervisory positions over youth to a higher standard of integrity and character. Whether they like it or not, they serve as a behavioral model to teens. They should take the “narrow road” and emulate wisdom and maturity every chance they get.
In this case, if I were the teacher, I would have been very upset and emotional about the situation. I believe such feelings are justifiable and natural. However, I would have spoken to the student in private, one-on-one, when I was calm and level-headed. In this case, the teacher “set up” the student. She asked other students to record the confrontation and apology. When I speak with teens, I remind them that retaliating is never the answer. It never defuses the situation or resolves the conflict. In fact, it usually makes things worse. Here, the teacher is clearly avenging the wrong she experienced.
We do need to remain gracious and understanding towards teens when they demonstrate immaturity. I wouldn’t want the student expelled, and I believe that two weeks of suspension is a just penalty. However, I wouldn’t want the teacher fired. Given what I’ve said above, can’t we extend some grace towards Ms. Hernandez Ramos as well – especially considering the emotional turmoil, stress, and sadness she must have experienced? Yes, she could have responded in a better way, but her victimization is an extenuating circumstance that lowers the maliciousness of her intent.
Not the First Time We Have Seen This
This reminds me of the situations involving parents who publicly shamed their daughters to teach them a lesson. Supporters of those parents’ actions termed it “creative parenting,” but it rightfully could be considered “cyberbullying.” If the dominant desire of any adult is to instill fear, guilt, and shame instead of conveying a life lesson about right and wrong in a healthy, encouraging, and loving manner, we’ve got a major problem. I’d consider such actions downright abusive. Caring adults should serve a protective function to buffer kids from the harsh realities of the world since they are at such a delicate point in their adolescent development.
Cyberbullied Adults Need Support, Assistance, and Guidance as Well
A number of adults contact our Center for assistance when being targeted. Their stories are as real, raw, and as devastating as the ones we hear from children and teens. Educators need to be trained and equipped to deal with online harassment and hate. This situation allows us to once again shine the spotlight on cyberbullying and ensure our prevention and response efforts are measured, informed, and best suited to truly make a meaningful difference.
Catfishing as a Form of Cyberbullying
“Catfishing,” at least in the online world, refers to the practice of setting up a fictitious online profile, most often for the purpose of luring another into a fraudulent romantic relationship. The Urban Dictionary defines a “catfish” as: “someone who pretends to be someone they’re not using Facebook or other social media to create false identities, particularly to pursue deceptive online romances.” So, to “catfish someone” is to set up a fake social media profile with the goal of duping that person into falling for the false persona. And if this has happened to you, you my friend have been “catfished.”
Of course people have been falsifying information online for decades and users have been putting fake information on social media profiles at least since MySpace launched in 2003, probably before. This became more widely known as catfishing after a 2010 documentary film highlighted the real-world ramifications of online relationships. In late 2012, MTV launched a reality TV show to capitalize on the interest in this activity.
A few weeks ago Notre Dame football star Manti Te’o became the poster child for catfishing when he was the apparent subject of one’s online angling. As a public figure, with a prominent social media footprint he was a prime target. Te’o developed an online relationship with someone he knew as Lennay Kekua. It is difficult to know how deep the relationship was, but he did refer to her as his “girlfriend” and mentioned repeatedly that he loved her.
Te’o amassed a wide following when it was learned that his grandmother and girlfriend (Kekua) died on the same day early in the 2012 football season. As a Michigan State football fan, I became interested in the Te’o story because his inspired performance during his first game after the deaths led to a crushing defeat of my beloved Green and White. Soon, it seemed, much of America was watching Te’o and the Fighting Irish.
While it has been confirmed that his grandmother did in fact die, his girlfriend did not. Media investigations revealed that she had never existed in the first place. In mid-January the sportsblog Deadspin broke the story that Kekua was a fictitious online persona created by a friend of Te’o’s. From the information we currently know, it appears most likely that Te’o was an unsuspecting victim, though some question his innocence and suggest this was all just an elaborate publicity stunt. In a statement released to the media, Te’o has maintained that he was a target: “To realize that I was the victim of what was apparently someone’s sick joke and constant lies was, and is, painful and humiliating.” Whether a victim or a co-conspirator, the Te’o tribulations have led to renewed interest in a form of cyberbullying that has been perpetrated against others for many years.
Catfishing as Cyberbullying
Misleading another on social media with the intent to cause harm is not new. In 2006, 13-year-old Megan Meier began an online relationship with a boy she knew as Josh Evans. For almost a month, Megan corresponded with this boy exclusively online because he said he didn’t have a phone and was homeschooled. One day in October of that year, Megan received a message from Josh on her MySpace profile saying “I don’t know if I want to be friends with you any longer because I hear you’re not nice to your friends.” This was followed by bulletins being posted through MySpace calling Megan “fat” and a “slut.” After seeing the messages, Megan became distraught and ran up into her room. A few minutes later, Megan’s mother Tina found her daughter hanging in her bedroom closet. Though she rushed her daughter to the hospital, Megan died the next day.
Six weeks after their daughter’s death, the Meier family learned that the boy with whom Megan had been corresponding never existed. Josh Evans (and his online profile) was created by Lori Drew, a neighbor and the mother of one of Megan’s friends. She created the profile as a way to spy on what Megan was saying about her daughter. Drew was eventually acquitted in federal court for her role in Megan’s death.
Another, more extreme example, is the case of Anthony Stancl, a New Berlin, Wisconsin, 18-year-old who in 2009 impersonated two girls (“Kayla” and “Emily”) on Facebook. He befriended and formed online romantic relationships with a number of boys in his high school (again, while posing and interacting as these two girls). He then convinced at least 31 of those boys to send him nude pictures or videos of themselves. As if that weren’t bad enough, Stancl – still posing as a girl and still communicating through Facebook – tried to convince more than half to meet with a male friend and let him perform sexual acts on them. If they refused, “she” told them that the pictures and videos would be released for all to see. Seven boys actually submitted to this horrific request, and allowed Stancl to perform sex acts on them, or they performed sex acts on him. He took numerous pictures of these encounters with his cell phone, and the police eventually found over 300 nude images of male teens on his computer. He was charged with five counts of child enticement, two counts of second-degree sexual assault of a child, two counts of third-degree sexual assault, possession of child pornography, and repeated sexual assault of the same child and received a 15-year sentence in prison in early 2010.
Anytime someone uses technology in a way that causes repeated harm to another, it can be classified as cyberbullying. Setting up a fake online profile and communicating with someone for the purpose of tricking them into developing a romantic relationship – only to break up with or otherwise harm them – is wrong. It also violates Facebook’s terms of service: “You will not provide any false personal information on Facebook, or create an account for anyone other than yourself without permission” and “You will not bully, intimidate, or harass any user.”
That said, some people use pseudonyms or alter-egos online to safeguard their identity. There are a lot of legitimate reasons for doing this and as long as your behaviors do not hurt others, or mislead them in a way that causes harm to them, this is probably just fine. It really comes down to intent: Are you masking your identity to protect yourself or to cause harm to others? It is one thing to be protective of your real identity for personal privacy reasons, but it is another thing entirely to create an alternative identity for the purpose of humiliating, harassing, or hurting someone else.
Some might argue that catfishing is harmless Internet fun and that people should know better than to enter into any significant relationship with another person they only know digitally. It is true that people need to take care not to put themselves into situations where they could fall for someone who doesn’t really exist. However, that does not make it OK to use technology to mislead someone, and leads to a “victim-blaming” mentality that gets us nowhere. To be sure, everyone needs to be skeptical and cautious when entering into online relationships. Those who do should consider using Skype, Facetime, or some other video-chatting service that will allow you to see and interact in real-time with the person you are communicating with. You should be suspicious if the other person continues to be hesitant about wanting you to see them in real life or online. Also, don’t give out too much personal information, especially early on, and never go by yourself to meet someone in person who you only know from online. Go with a friend – or better yet a group of friends. They can protect you if something turns out to be not what it seems.
It is easy to be blinded by feelings of affection, especially when someone is giving you more positive attention than you have ever gotten from anyone else before. Just remember to stop and think about the possibility that someone might be taking advantage of you and proceed with the utmost caution. As they say, if something (or in this case someone) seems too good to be true, it probably is.
Nice it Forward
There appears to be a growing movement among teens to, well, be nice. Or at least a movement to actively use social media to say nice things about others. We are all familiar with the myriad of ways that technology can be used to cause harm; this blog is dedicated to working towards limiting those behaviors and experiences. Some students, though, are now working to counteract all of that negativity by marshaling the power of technology to do good. Specifically, a number of teens have set up social media accounts, mostly on twitter, for the primary purpose of saying nice things about others at their schools.
The push to “Nice it Forward” seems to have been started by Kevin Curwick, a high school football player from Osseo, MN (a suburb of Minneapolis). Using his twitter handle “@OsseoNiceThings,” Curwick quite simply tweets nice things to his followers about his school and classmates:
“Probably the nicest girl ever. She’s fun to be around and loves to smile. A great adapted soccer and hockey player. Chelsey Gunderson.”
“Always has his heart in the right place and is doing his part to keep the kindness alive! Joe Tiedeman.”
“The best break dancer at Osseo. He’s the guy to go to for just about anything, especially a laugh. Billy Lor.”
The idea is catching on, not only around the Twin Cities metro area in Minnesota (@ERHSnicewords; @EdinaNice; @MinnetonkaNice) but at numerous schools around the United States @TerraceNice; @GNHSNiceThings; @kentwood_nice). For example, a student at a school near where I live recently launched an account (@CamNiceThings) in response to two twitter accounts that were anonymously feeding negative information about the school (the hurtful accounts have since been removed, thanks at least in part to a student who condemned them on Facebook).
I really love this. Sameer and I have long advocated for getting students involved in activities to prevent bullying and for empowering teens to do their part to develop a positive climate at their school (see this fact sheet with some ideas to get them inspired). It reminds me of the Pink Shirt Day movement that started in Canada over 5 years ago when two Nova Scotia teens wanted to do something to combat the hurtful comments that were being directed toward a freshman who wore a pink shirt on the first day of school. Instead of directly confronting the bullies, the seniors bought 50 pink t-shirts and encouraged their classmates to wear pink to school the next day. Talk about a strong message of support for the targeted student. And as far as I can tell, no adults were involved in the execution of this simple yet effective idea.
That also appears to be the case with the Nice it Forward movement. Teens from around the country are stepping up, even without the prodding of adults, to show their classmates that bullying is not cool. The media might have us believe that the majority of teens are bullies and even though our research clearly shows that isn’t the case, it is helpful to see teens take visible steps in their schools to illustrate that the bullies are in the minority. “Nicing” it Forward, so to speak, sends a message to those who are being targeted for bullying that they are not alone and that at least some students at the school are on their side and appreciate who they are and what they do. Everyone has value. But it also implicitly encourages everyone in the school community to be nicer to each other. Students are demonstrating that it is cool to care. And that, my friends, is cool indeed.