Do you remember passing notes in school? There's the classic innocent example of "do you like me?", followed by three choices: "yes, no, or maybe?". A shoebox full of the notes I passed back and forth with my schoolmates would be a great (and probably embarrassing) overview of my teenage years.
These days, there's no need for pen and paper. Like most adults, today's youth are using digital formats to orchestrate their lives and communicate with their friends. As cell phones and PDAs flood our nation's schools, these forms of communication predominate the landscape from an early age. We're all chatting and texting more than ever before.
Trouble starts when the innocent communications ("yes, no, or maybe?") turn to those that are more explicit and even insulting. These days, schoolyard scuffles are often incited by cyberbullies. Harassment starts digitally, but often leads to physical confrontation. Starting as early as third grade, cyberbullying has become a convenient way for bullies to harass and create paranoia for their victims. And, instead of making sure the bully isn't lurking around the corner somewhere, cyberbullies follow them everywhere they take their cellphones. Fear and paranoia are heightened by this digital world where attackers hide behind a digital moniker and use explicit language freely. Somehow, digital forms of communication have allowed people to exaggerate communications (think, excessive and unnecessary !!!!!!s and ??????s) as there's no accountability for the feelings and emotions of a face to face conversation.
Instead of focusing on school and building skills through afterschool programs, cyberbullying victims are worrying about the next insulting message to appear on their cellphones. Boys tend to be more aggressive and brutal, while girls spread rumors. Both have a similar impact in that the harassing communications are produced by the bullies and then the victims are subject to teasing after their taunts are exposed quickly (i.e. digitally) by others.
This theme was explored in my first book, Mackenzie Blue. The title character finds her diary has fallen in the hands of someone intent on making her look bad to all of her friends. While her secrets are revealed on classroom whiteboards, the bully proceeds to send Zee (as she's known) threatening text messages, instant messages, and emails. Many readers emailed me expressing that they too had firsthand experience with cyberbullying.
In a recent study conducted by Dr. Parry Aftab, the nation's leading expert on all things cyberbullying-related, 85% of the 40,000 middle schoolers polled had some experience with cyberbullying. And yet only 5% would feel comfortable discussing it with their parents.
At some point, the incessant teasing leads to a physical confrontation, heightened by long periods of digital communications that cause tensions to peak. And, as is the case with many abusive relationships, the victims rarely disengage from the communication, potentially leading to suicide.
It's fair to ask, how can something so seemingly harmless be taken so far? The answer is simple: kids are hiding it from their parents, and oftentimes their peers, due to embarrassment and a delusional perspective brought about by the digital context of the bullying.
WiredSafety has formed a coalition of media, industry and policy leaders to address these issues. And most importantly, they are including their award-winning Teenangels and Tweenangels (expert youth) to help. Next Tuesday, I'll be speaking at a roundtable at the United States Senate to discuss the impact of cyberbullying on today's youth and ways we may be able to prevent it from continuing. The event on Tuesday gives us all a chance to share their thoughts and initiatives. Everyone from MTV to Facebook to Disney to Build-A-Bear Workshop and the FTC will be there to help brainstorm."
I'm excited to brainstorm ideas with some of our nation's leaders in youth development and education. I'm sure we'll come up with some strategies for preventing cyberbullying. For now, as always, we'll start with the parents, who should carefully monitor their childrens' cyber-relationships, with an eye out for the neighborhood bully.
What: The StopCyberbullying Coalition Roundtable - Understanding, Preventing and Addressing Cyberbullying from the Trenches
Where: The Russell Senate Office Building SR:325
When: Tuesday, October 13, 2009
Time: Noon - 4pm (lunch provided)
Who: Members of the StopCyberbullying Coalition, Industry Leaders, Tweenangels and Teenangels, Cyberbullying Experts, Members of the Media and Policymakers, Cybersafety organizations, Internet industry and entertainment leaders, members of the media and news agencies, child protection and anti-violence advocacy groups, community service organizations, law enforcement agencies, policymakers, authors, researchers and educational institutions, coalitions and working groups are each tackling cyberbullying and the risks associated with kids and teens hurting each other using digital devices and technologies. Members of the StopCyberbullying Coalition representing each of these stakeholder groups will share their work and expertise at the StopCyberbullying Coalition Roundtable.
The afternoon will consist of a lunch presentation, followed by three one-hour long panels of experts, young people, industry representatives and key stakeholder groups. Vibrant discussions and interactions with the participants will take place throughout the afternoon as we move towards a greater understanding of the issues, the wonderful work taking place and next steps.
Space is limited. RSVP required, 201-444-8910 or firstname.lastname@example.org.