Social media widens bullies' reach

By Jennifer Brett

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Published: Wednesday, May 2 2012 5:00 a.m. MDT

Courtney Farmer, 17, describes how she suffers bullying from family members and from fellow students at Tri Cities High School because of her weight and her proper diction, during an interview at VOX Teen Communications in Atlanta, Georgia, April 17, 2012. (Curtis Compton/Atlanta Journal-Constitution/MCT)

Curtis Compton, Mct

ATLANTA — As a kindergartener, Melani Carter endured a school bus bully, a pushy fifth grader who muscled her out of her seat day after day. Her parents intervened after she came home in tears, and the tormenting stopped.

Today Carter is a junior at Kennesaw State University, with her days of being bullied decades in the past, right?

Wrong. Carter started recognizing herself in a stream of snippy tweets after falling out with a friend just a couple of years ago.

"It was hurtful because it was on the Internet," said Carter, 22. "You have this power behind the computer. In elementary school on the bus, cyberbullying wasn't around back then. It's worse now."

While the documentary "Bully," which features the story of a 17-year-old Georgia high school student who hanged himself in 2009, deals with face-to-face bullying, it's enjoyed prominent buzz via social media. Initially rated R, it is now rated PG-13 following a campaign that included social-media savvy celebrities.

The Anti-Defamation League, which runs a bullying prevention program called No Place for Hate, has been active in numerous events surrounding the movie. The Atlanta-based Southeast Regional headquarters partnered with the Centers for Disease Control for a March Twitter Town Meeting on bullying.

The ADL's Southeast Regional director, Bill Nigut, said cyberbullying can be even worse than face-to-face bullying, because it follows children home from school.

"It's relentless. There's no way to escape it," he said. "Your child can be sitting in his or her own bedroom. You think they're doing their homework. Which they may be, but they're also checking Facebook every five minutes. They can be bombarded."

It can be tricky for parents to know how to help prevent their children from being targets, as their kids may be far more proficient with social media, but Nigut suggests staying engaged. His own 15-year-old has a Facebook account under the condition that Mom and Dad are her "friends," and can monitor her posts.

Holli Levinson, Education Project Director at the ADL's Southeast Regional office, said studies show that while traditional bullying tapers off after middle school, cyberbullying flourishes throughout high school and beyond.

"We hear this all the time: A dispute starts on Facebook and the next day there's a fight in school," she said. Technology has evolved far more rapidly than our ability to educate ourselves and our kids to use technology responsibly. The default mode is cruelty to some extent."

She's been working with teens about this issue through the ADL's Cyber Ally program, which aims to foster civility online.

"We have been talking to them about how you can be the person online who helps stop cyberbullying and obviously not participate," she said. "What if you posted a nice comment after someone else's nasty comment? What if you didn't forward that email?"

Jonathan Schuster and Ashley Katzenstein, both 16 and active in a Jewish teen organization called BBYO, said their group is committed to combating all forms of intimidation, including cyberbullying.

"Hurtful texts are very, very common," Schuster said. "There's a ton of kids who experience that daily."

He said he has not experienced bullying at the Weber School, where he is a junior, but friends at other schools endure it.

"It's mind games — stuff like 'don't show up at school,'" he said. But social media can be a tool against bullying, too, he said.

"If kids are posting about bullying, a chain reaction should occur," he said "I really think the advocating can overpower the cyberbullying."

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