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Standing Up to the Cyberbullies
Malik Frank, Breanna King, Angelica Sanchez, Linda Sankat

Bullying has been around for a long, long time. But the relatively recent ability to harass, threaten, tease, and belittle people in front of a huge online audience has refocused public attention on this all-too-common crime.

According to the Cyberbullying Research Center, one in five teens has been a victim of cyberbullying, which can range from teasing to death threats. Cyberbullying is often anonymous, so perpetrators can engage in it with little fear that they’ll be held responsible.

For some victims of cyberbullying, the vicious and very public ridicule has been too much. Some teens have even committed suicide in response to online harassment. It’s gotten the public’s attention. People have started blogs, Facebook pages, and Twitter accounts dedicated to raising awareness about how destructive bullying can be, and encouraging teens and adults alike to stand up against it.

Even the White House has gotten involved. Last spring, President Barack Obama hosted a conference on bullying prevention, with the goal of destroying the “myth that bullying is just a harmless rite of passage or an inevitable part of growing up” instead of a vicious crime that can have devastating consequences for the victim. In September, Lady Gaga met with President Obama during a political fundraiser and urged him to continue addressing the bullying problem.

Making Bullying Laws Tougher

It’s not just presidents and pop stars who are standing up to cyberbullying, though.

New York and New Jersey have recently taken a hard line against bullying, recognizing how hurtful—and dangerous—it can be. In September, a New Jersey law took effect requiring school employees to identify and prevent harassment and bullying. Under the new law, know as the Anti-Bullying Bill of Rights, schools must now have a “school safety team” to respond to such incidents. If school administrators are caught not investigating bullying incidents, they can be disciplined.

When bullying happens in a public place like school, adults can more easily catch on and do something to stop the bullying (not that they always do). But cyberbullying is different. It happens online, where it’s harder for adults to “overhear” what’s going on.

Sometimes cyberbullying starts innocently, when someone gets bored and tries to play around without thinking about the effects on the other person. Other cyberbullying is intentionally mean, and it doesn’t stop after the first time. When it happens, a lot of kids just keep their feelings inside and don’t seek help, causing them to feel very hurt. Some kids even become suicidal.

That’s why New York State Senator Jeff Klein introduced a bill in September that would treat online bullying of anyone under 21 as third-degree stalking, which is a misdemeanor. In cases where the cyberbullying leads to the victim’s suicide, however, the crime would become a felony with a possible 15-year prison sentence. The legislation was proposed in response to the suicide of Jamey Rodemeyer, a 14-year-old from western New York state who was bullied for years about his sexuality, according to family members.

Rodemeyer took his life a year after Tyler Clementi, a freshman at Rutgers University, committed suicide by jumping off the George Washington Bridge. Clementi’s suicide came after his roommate put a video on the Internet that showed Clementi having a sexual encounter with another man. That tragedy prompted U.S. Senator Frank Lautenberg and U.S. Representative Rush Holt, both of New Jersey, to introduce legislation in Congress last spring to combat harassment and bullying on college campuses. The legislation would require all universities and colleges to have a harassment policy and to make students aware of resources, like mental health counseling and other services, to help victims and bullies alike.

Here’s a look at some other ways people are saying, “No more.”

—With reporting by Malik Frank

A Thin Line

Earlier this year, teen pop star Justin Bieber joined MTV, Facebook, Myspace, and a number of other organizations in taking a stand against cyberbullying by becoming a spokesperson for “A Thin Line,” MTV’s campaign to fight online abuse. Bieber has spoken publicly about being the target of online jokes and abusive statements himself. The campaign is meant to get teens thinking about how a joke or comment may seem harmless but can easily spread online and end up devastating people’s lives.

Nearly 800,000 people have already taken action as part of the campaign. Some started blogs and anti-bullying groups to create more awareness about cyberbullying. MTV has created a way for people to have online conversations where they can talk about how bullying has affected their lives and discuss solutions.

Participating in “A Thin Line” is just one way that Facebook is addressing the problem. The company recently unveiled a new set of anti-bullying tools meant to create a culture of respect among its users. Why? The existence of Facebook has made it easy for this kind of bullying to happen. Most teens today have Facebook pages, and Facebook is a place where cyberbullies like to hang out and do their dirty work.

In response, Facebook set up a Facebook Safety Center that offers several ways to report offensive or threatening content, all in one place. When you enter the safety center, there are tools you can use to block someone, control who sees your info, and report harassing messages. Facebook has also created places on users’ pages to help them find answers to safety questions. These can be found under a Facebook user’s privacy settings.

I investigated the “reporting harassing messages” tool. You can click the “report” link next to the sender’s name on the message and remove the person as a friend. Reporting the message as harassment will also automatically block the person from communicating with you. Reports are confidential, so people you report don’t automatically know they have been reported. After you submit a report, Facebook investigates the issue and determines the appropriate course of action.

image by YC-Art Dept

—Breanna King

One Person Can Make a Difference

Last fall, Pennsylvania photographer Jennifer McKendrick had a senior portrait shoot scheduled with four girls. But before the photo shoot, McKendrick was on Facebook and came across a “burn page,” which is a page created so students can write insulting comments about classmates for everyone to see.

According to the British newspaper the Daily Mail, McKendrick read the comments and was shocked by the vicious things some of the girls were saying. The perpetrators didn’t talk about bad clothes or bad hair or ugly shoes; they talked about the victim’s sexuality. McKendrick recognized the names of the four girls posting the harassing comments. They were her clients—the ones who were scheduled for the upcoming senior portrait shoot.

McKendrick felt that she needed to intervene. She contacted the four girls’ parents and told them she was canceling their shoot and returning their deposits. She explained to the parents what she’d seen, and shared a screen shot of the girls’ comments as proof. The parents wrote her back and expressed their shock. They apologized for their children’s behavior and informed McKendrick that they would speak with the girls.

According to the Daily Mail, McKendrick later wrote on her blog, “...how could I spend two hours with someone during our session trying to make beautiful photos of them knowing they could do such ugly things?”

Dozens of people have written to McKendrick to applaud her for standing up to bullies. McKendrick said she knew refusing to photograph them wasn’t going to make them better people or make them stop bullying others, but she didn’t want people who act and say things like that to have any association with her business.

Even though McKendrick knew she couldn’t stop bullying, she still got involved. It was courageous. Many people get bullied mercilessly and have no one to be their voice. But McKendrick chose to help out a stranger who was being harassed online. If more people took the opportunity to speak out against cyberbullying like that, it might end.

—Angelica Sanchez

Using Cyberspace to Stop Cyberbullying

Last year, sex advice columnist Dan Savage created the “It Gets Better Project,” in which he invited adults to share, via video, hopeful messages for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) teens after several teens who’d been harassed and bullied about their sexuality committed suicide.

The project started with a single YouTube video. Dan and his husband, Terry Miller, posted a video encouraging LGBT teens to persevere despite adversity. “The worst time of life, really, for many gay kids is high school, and if at that time of your life you choose to end your life, the bullies really won then, and you have deprived yourself of so much potential for happiness,” they said.

Savage and Miller went on to describe the pain of their own childhoods. Savage had a strict Catholic upbringing where, he said, “…there were no gay people in my family and no openly gay people in my school and I was picked on ’cause…I was obviously gay.”

Miller too, faced a great deal of harassment in school, never receiving the justice that he deserved. “…my parents went in once to talk to the school administrators…and they basically said ‘If you look that way, walk that way, talk that way, act that way, then there’s nothing we can do to help [you].”

The “It Gets Better Project” has received over 25,000 video submissions to date. Each video features a person speaking a message of encouragement to LGBT teens. Entries have been submitted by people from all walks of life, gay and straight. A few notable entries include those of President Barack Obama, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Adam Lambert, Anne Hathaway, Colin Farrell, Matthew Morrison of “Glee,” Ellen DeGeneres, and people who work at a number of big corporations, including the Gap, Facebook, and Pixar.

Six months after it got started, the campaign released a book called It Gets Better: Coming Out, Overcoming Bullying, and Creating a Life Worth Living. The book had over 100 contributors, including religious leaders, politicians, parents, teachers, and youth. Savage’s project spreads hope to the victims of all bullying, not just cyberbullying.

—Linda Sankat

Go to itgetsbetter.org to watch videos or to share your story.

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