Technology’s nature as an ever-evolving landscape and its growing presence in the lives of young people means fighting cyberbullying is both more difficult and more critical than ever.
NEW YORK — When he learned that a teenage girl took her own life because of cyberbullying, Todd Schobel knew he needed to join the fight to prevent future tragedies from unfolding. In just a few days, he came up with an app to empower young people to stand up against bullying.
“[I believe] kids are good. I don’t think there’s a culture of evil right now with children. They’re no worse or better than they were 50 years ago, so why not give them the power to go ahead and make this change? And with STOPit, it gives them a tool to go ahead quickly, efficiently and to make a difference,” Schobel told MintPress News in an interview.
But combating cyberbullying is a battle in an ever-evolving landscape. Each new app — especially ones like Yik Yak that allow users to remain anonymous — offers new, harsher breeding grounds for harassment.
‘Why not empower the largest force you possibly can?’
Schobel’s story begins in October 2012 with 15-year old Canadian Amanda Todd, who committed suicide after years of struggling with bullying both in real life and online.
Through a simple YouTube search, he found videos she made prior to her suicide that had gone viral. As a parent, Schobel said he was immediately overwhelmed with emotion.
“It’s just horrible, she’s just staring at you in such desperation, and that was it for me. I started to look at what solutions were out there to fight this and I immediately thought to myself, ‘Why not enlist, why not empower the largest force you possibly can?’ And that’s the youth — the future,” Schobel said.
Todd posted “My Story: Struggling, bullying, suicide, self harm” on YouTube about a month before her death. In the black and white video, she looks like any teenage girl. But through a series of handwritten notes on white cards, she relays the harrowing incidents and ongoing torment she faced.
On one card, she mentions a suicide attempt that kids taunted her about on Facebook. They wrote that “she deserved it” and asked her if she washed the mud out of her hair. One even wrote, “I hope she’s dead.”
Todd writes on another card, “I have nobody, I need someone.” Her name is written on the final card.
Nearly 31 percent of teens claim to have been bullied online, according to a recent nationwide survey by Cox Communications and the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children. Also highlighting a worrisome trend, the survey said teens are not speaking up enough and telling their parents about these experiences.
As more studies are released that link cyberbullying to suicidal thoughts, the idea that cases like Todd’s could have been prevented has generated public outrage.
In the week after Todd’s death, Schobel came up with the original 4-prong, customizable concept of the mobile application with the STOPit, HELPit, FRIENDit and REPORTit features. Also aimed at opening up a dialogue between parents and children and teens, Schobel sought to ease the stigma surrounding the online battlegrounds.
The features have different functions that allow users to report instances in which they have been bullied and to report that someone else is being bullied. STOPit, known as “Stand Tall Tell All,” allows users to forward messages or images to trusted adults, and HELPit, or “A Shoulder to Lean On,” opens up a direct communication line with a crisis center either through a text or a call. FRIENDit, or “Always Anonymous Upstander,” allows users to report incidents anonymously, and REPORTit, or “Protection,” provides a forum for documenting abuse and reporting it to law enforcement officials.
“People can stand up and make a difference for you,” Schobel said, adding that “when kids or when anybody is given an opportunity to display courage, it changes lives.”
At a recent school rally about the mobile app, he said, a 7th grade girl raised her hand and asked, “If I have a friend that is hurting herself, can I use STOPit to help her?”
“Right next to me was one of the teachers and we just looked at each other,” Schobel said. “First of all, how long is this child harboring this for? Why hasn’t she told anybody? I know it’s self-serving to say, but we were there, administrators got to her.”
There are two versions of STOPit: an individual version for parents and kids and a school version for an entire student body. Access codes are set and distributed among participating schools. The app also features a “school cyberbully contact” and crisis center location set for each school.
An integral part of the app is the “DOCUMENTit” system that allows students to send a report, which can also include a screenshot as evidence, that school officials can respond to in real time. From there, an administrator can decide on what type of action to take next, like whether local law enforcement authorities should get involved or not.
Since it was launched in January, STOPit has already been set up in seven schools across New Jersey and Florida.
Demika Jackson, dean of students for Somerset Academy Eagle Campus, a charter school in Jacksonville, Florida, and one of the first schools to sign up, told MintPress that a few weeks after the mobile app took off, she could see a noticeable change in the student body.
Attributing the dwindling amount of cyberbullying cases to the school’s new spotlight on awareness and prevention, she said the app has become a new and effective deterrent against cyberbullying.
Nowhere to hide
One of the worst things about cyberbullying is that no place is safe — not even someone’s own home — because the vehicle carrying the harassing messages or images travels in someone’s pocket, according to Dr. Kerric Harvey, associate director of the Center for Innovative Media and associate professor at the School of Media and Public Affairs at George Washington University.
“If you carry the means by which you are being bullied into what used to be a safe haven — you take it home with you — you know who is bullying and you are being bullied anonymously. What that means is you can’t trust anyone,” Harvey told MintPress.
Smartphones can connect people to the world, but they can also turn people into victims, Harvey said, explaining that a smartphone can become a source of fear that creates a state of paranoia from which there is no escape.
This is especially true of alerts to social media pings throughout the night, she added. This shows “an entire shift towards truly distorted thinking; the difference between compromised time and uncompromised time when it comes to being accessible to social media.”
With social networking sites linked to the biggest loss of sleep among young users, studies suggest parents should curtail the use of technology before bed. But with reputations on the line and a need to “save face,” social media has become an all-too-consuming obsession for many children and teens.
Bullying’s ability to jump tracks across Twitter and Instagram, for example, is a key part of its potency, according to Harvey. Combined with its “capillary effect,” there is no way to retrieve bullying material, particularly once it goes viral, she said, so its spread can never really be stopped.
Capitalizing on the “benign capabilities” of social media, Harvey offered a common example in which cyberbullies obtain a normal picture of the person they are bullying then digitally alter it to show the individual engaging in sexual or illegal activities or otherwise shocking behavior.
Pointing to a nascent trend that she forecast as the “next big thing” in cyberbullying, she singled out cyberbullies posting their victim’s photos or information on illegal and unsavory websites.
With revenge pornography, for instance, personal content, information and photographs of the victim are released to pornographic sites. A fake online persona of the victim can also be created to make it seem as if that individual is willfully engaging in porn.
“You’re 13 years old, you’re 14 years old, and suddenly your picture and where to call you to follow up if somebody finds that picture attractive, is blasted all over the Internet and social media porn sites,” Harvey said. “How do you ever recover from that?”
Reaching a kid
“I’ve spoken to probably about a half a million kids at this point, but there’s never been a resource for kids to actually reach out and help themselves or any kind of recording system,” said Sgt. Tom Rich, the STOPit Organization’s cybersafety expert.
Approached by Schobel in the app’s development phase, Sgt. Rich is also a full-time police officer in New Jersey and the founder of Alwaysconnected.org, a platform addressing issues that kids may face with technology.
He has heard countless stories — each one as painful as the next. To his surprise, many kids approach him once he finishes a presentation or a rally at a school because his “straight talk” knocks down the initial wall of communication.
Of all the young people who have approached him, one young girl’s story has really stuck with him. She had recently broken up with her boyfriend, and she didn’t know what to do. She told him that two days before, she told her mother she was suicidal, but her mother, she said, did nothing.
The girl said she found herself on the stairs of her middle school the night before the presentation, which prompted Sgt. Rich to ask, “Did you reach out to anybody?”
“She rolled up her sleeve and shows me a fresh cut,” said Sgt. Rich.
At the moment, he said he carefully got her acquainted with counselors and made sure she was OK, then he proceeded to show her how to use the app on his phone as an avenue for help.
“If I can text somebody any time of the day, or if I can actually make a phone call to somebody and it doesn’t even matter if they know who I am or not, but just to reach out, I would have used this last night,” she told Sgt. Rich.