Cyberbullying Solutions At SXSW

At South by Southwest (SXSW) 2012, Kristin Russo and Dannielle Owens-Reid, founders of the advice website and youth outreach organization Everyone Is Gay, shared how their straightforward and humorous approach connects with LGBT teens and young adults. They returned in 2013 to present a panel titled "Ermahgerd: Cyberbullying" that addressed the overall problem of online bullying, a problem that affects not only LGBT teens, but all youth and even adults.

The stats they obtained from Internet Safety 101 point to the overall nature of this problem. Among teens age 13-17, 43% of them report they have experienced some sort of cyberbullying in past year; 34% of those who have had engagement in cyberbullying have been both a cyberbully and cyberbullied.

68% of teens believe cyberbullying is serious problem among today's youth.

Unlike bullying that transpires in person where one can often retreat to a safe haven after school or work, the 24/7 nature of the Internet means one cannot escape from online bullying.

Why asked they engaged in cyberbullying, teens responded as follows:

  • 11% to show off to their friends
  • 14% to be mean  
  • 16% something else
  • 21% to embarrass them
  • 28% for fun or entertainment
  • 58% because they deserved it
  • 58% to get back at someone

Dannielle and Kristin conducted a focus group with teens in New York City so they could learn the specific ways that bullying occurs online. The teens noted that most of their parents and teachers did not seem to be aware of the myriad ways that technology can be utilized for the purpose of cyberbullying.

Sites such as tumblr, ask.fm and Formspring allow people to send anonymous messages without revealing their identity. Other sites can enable people to send emails and text messages from email addresses and phone numbers that don't exist. Also, people hide behind fake profiles on sites like Facebook to engage in cyberbullying.  

While anonymity allows people to hide behind a fake persona and tear someone down, Kristin and Dannielle stress that almost all the questions they get from teens are anonymous because those who write to them express a fear they will be judged if their identity is revealed. These expressions of one's true self through a site like Everyone is Gay allow LGBT people around the world who are also in hiding to realize they are not alone. They add that Tumblr does enable one to turn off the anonymous feature so people cannot send that person anonymous messages.

In researching solutions, Dannielle and Kristin found scant information out there that was accessible to teens.

They noted a major disconnect between youth who were born into the Internet world and adults who are seen by youth as out of touch with technology. Hence, they feel peer education is key to solving this problem.

For those looking to design anti-cyberbullying resources, they offer the following suggestions:

  • Use your talents. If you don't work with youth directly, think about volunteering with organizations that work with youth so that your end result will appeal to this market.
  • Don't be an idiot. If you're a developer, don't build apps and add ons like Ugly Meter and Facebook's EnemyGraph that can add to the negativity. Also, correct others who contribute to this negative climate as need be.
  • Be vigilant. You need to be able to block users and abusers and know how the app can be misused. For example, the share function on Bullyblock ended up being used to bully people.
  • Look beyond. See how you how can encourage kindness and building people up.
  • Kids are not morons. Most programs they found put adults at the forefront. Kids need to be trusted to create and run programs to educate their peers. This is not about adults fixing a kid problem, but about young people being empowered to take action on their own.
  • Black and white is bullshit. These stories can be quite complex as there is not a line that divides bullies from those being bullied. We all have the capacity to be negative all the time. This is a people hating on other people issue not a bad person and victim issue.

This topic was addressed in another SXSW session titled "Bullying: Social Media Problem and Solution" that explored how social media can be used to prevent bullying before it happens and diffusing it once it occurs.

Scott Zumwalt, Chief Digital Strategist of the It Gets Better Project, outlined a few takeaways regarding why he felt this particular project became a viral sensation. 

  • It was a truly grassroots movement where 99% of the videos were completely user generated. It was hard for people to say no to this project.
  • They created a project that would foster community growth. They designed a website that would house all the videos, continued the conversation using social media and encouraged people to sign a pledge so they had their information and could communicate with them.
  • They pushed the right buttons when they could and when it was possible given their limited resources. For example, having Hillary Clinton make a video made it much easier for the President to jump on board.
  • They embraced technology. The project came out at a time when people could record a 30 second video using an iPhone and uploading it to YouTube.

Moving forward they are focusing on several key areas.

  • Media Outreach. They want to keep making videos citing how each video tells a unique story. Also, they are looking to expand their audience using other media platforms.
  • Creating Engagement. Working with other organizations like the Trevor Project and the Bully Project who have the resources to actually make it better. They just launched Better Legal which utilizes their project with legal resources and have a theater project that is touring the country.  
  • International Focus. They want to push their reach to fill the void, especially in those areas where there are no LGBT organizations. Currently, they have 12 international affiliates open with people on the ground and are looking to do more in this regard including offering videos in other languages.

After I caught the documentary Bully at 2011 Tribeca Film Festival, I hoped his film would find a wider audience. Hence, I was pleased to see Lee Hirsch, Director of the documentary Bully, explain The Bully Project, a social action campaign to end bullying. A lot of their work is using the energy of the film to get school districts to use the film as part of their curriculum.

To date, thousands of school districts have engaged with The Bully Project.

Hirsch observed how the national conversation has now changed with groups like Anonymous using technology to go after people who are bullying in a style of vigilante justice. Zumwalt concurred, citing one of the goals for a lot of LGBT advocates is to work themselves out of a job.

Rather than censor free speech, those presenting at both sessions stressed bringing the negative voices to light and then showing forth a better way. This begs the question, if enough people believe out loud, will it get better? One can hope.

Photo via Everyone Is Gay

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