By: Adrian Bacolo at 04:20 pm
Growing up, we were often told to ignore name-callers and schoolyard tormentors with a simple rhyme: “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” That wasn’t really true then and it’s especially untrue now, since bullies no longer have to confront their prey face-to-face on the playground.
For many kids, taunting has gone digital and because of the way information gets shared across mobile devices and social networking sites, it’s even harder to stop the dissemination of hurtful communication. The buzzword you’ve probably heard in the news is “cyberbullying,” an imprecise term that doesn’t fully encapsulate or account for all the cruelly creative ways kids find to harass one another.
On Monday evening, the New York Times hosted a cyberbullying summit in New York City led by City Council Speaker Christine C. Quinn and featuring panelists from MTV, Microsoft and more. Also joining the summit were representatives from the New York State Department of Education, NYC Relationship Abuse Prevention Program, WiredSafety.org and Common Sense Media.
The summit was live-streamed on the City Council’s website and will soon be available on Time Warner Cable’s free Local On Demand channel 1111 in the New York City area. Several times during the two-and-half-hour summit I found myself thinking about my nieces, ages 14 and 10, and their friends, and if the problem is really as bad as it seems…
Understanding the problem: What is it exactly?
The problem is two-fold. There’s the act of cyberbullying – the intentional and pervasive harm inflicted via devices like cell phones and computers – then there’s the response, or lack thereof by kids who are afraid to speak up and parents and educators unsure how to squash this troubling behavior.
The New York City student performance group Enact brought one example to life at the summit. It showed the story of Laurie, a teenage girl who so wanted to prove to her boyfriend how much she loved him, that she messaged him revealing photos she’d taken with her cell phone.
After some initial butterflies, Laurie sends the images to her pleading Romeo. “That wasn’t so bad,” she says, before beaming, “I feel grown up…like Kim Kardashian.”
Soon Laurie’s boyfriend is sharing the pictures with his friends, and his friends with their friends, and their friends with…Naturally, the images go viral. The backlash to Laurie is severe. Her friends are disappointed. Her mother, shocked, and Laurie’s reputation – and self-esteem – shattered.
Later, Speaker Quinn would articulate the long-lasting impact of a scenario like this. “Bullying can happen 24/7, in incredibly even more intrusive, abusive ways,” she said. “It becomes part of your permanent record, if you will, and it will never go away.”
Cyberbullying has leveled the playing field. Anyone can do it.
In the past, there were familiar conceptions of who could be a bully. Offenders were popular or handsome or just physically threatening. They made themselves feel empowered by picking on those who were perceived to be less attractive, less wealthy, less popular, smaller, fatter, slower, smarter…
As one teenager at the summit put it, now even “dorky” kids can be cyberbullies by signing online and creating a hate-filled Facebook page or getting ahold of another kid’s cell phone and sending messages without his or her knowledge. This is called cyberbullying-by-proxy and must be some sort of game, only with real-world consequences.
With cell phones and computers, there’s safety for cyberbullies: anonymity. According to StopCyberBullying.org, it’s less about who you are in person and more about who you are behind the screen. They categorize the four types of cyberbullies as Mean Girls, Inadvertent Cyberbullies, Power-Hungry and Vengeful Angels. Learn more about each type here.
Listen to your kids. They know what they’re talking about.
The summit’s first panel was titled “Understanding the Problem.” It was conducted by Parry Aftab of WiredSafety.org and included eight youngsters who were intimately impacted by cyberbullying. Each one showed up to talk about their experience and how they’re now working to help make a difference.
Like WiredSafety’s Teenangels and Tweenangels, a couple of whom were present Monday night. All are volunteers. They’re not adults talking down to kids, either; in fact, they’re kids themselves speaking up for and to their own peers. They understand the technology just as much as they understand how quickly a text or picture can be shared and manipulated against them.
Another example is Don’t Stand By, Stand Up, which was started by Nina Montgomery after her high-school friend Tyler Clementi killed himself last fall. (If the name sounds familiar, that’s because Clementi’s suicide made national headlines in September.) Don’t Stand By, Stand Up is a remarkable effort by a young person that is sure to gather more attention as Montgomery vies for the top spot in Seventeen magazine’s Pretty Amazing Real-Cover Contest.
Adults need help, too.
Earlier in the evening, City Council Member Robert Jackson identified the priority: creating a safe environment for kids. “Safety is No. 1.” So what options are available to help parents and educators who are overwhelmed by the sheer amount of digital information out there? Luckily, there are numerous resources on the Internet, only a click away. Here are several that came up on Monday:
Let us know in the comments your thoughts on or experience with cyberbullying.