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Understanding Bullying in the Digital Age by Tisha Marina Bernard

bullied_3_sqRemember the telephone game? One person at the end of the line whispers a word or phrase into the ear of the person standing next to them. For example the word may be “banana.” The next person then whispers what they heard to the next person. This continues until the person at the end of the line says the word they heard out loud. The results are often a new word such as “bandana.” ” Educators often use this game to display how quickly rumors can spread.

There are new games that young people are playing these days that are similar, but it is through technology and sometimes they can be deadly. Students create mean or insulting rumors and spread it to as many people as possible. At the end, the rumor has been embellished and is most likely more cruel than when it started. This is a form of Cyberbullying, which is bullying or harassment online. It can happen in a text message, on an online game, or on a social networking site. It might involve rumors, comments, or images posted on someone’s profile or passed around for other people to see. Bullying used to start at the beginning of the school day and end at the final bell. It now it happens 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days of the year.

As an adult, imagine this scenario: you left work one day happy and friendly with all your co-workers. You return to work the next day only to discover no one speaking to you and shunning you wherever you go. You discover that a false and mean-spirited email was send about you and seen all over the office. No one will listen to you share your side of the story. From this day forward, no likes you or talks to you at work. As unrealistic as this scenario may sound to us, this is what some students experience every single day.

According to the Department of Education, Bureau of Justice Statistics and Cyberbullying Research Center:

Percent of students who reported being cyber bullied 52%
Teens who have experienced cyber threats online 33%
Teens who have been bullied repeatedly through their cell phones or the internet 25%
Teens who do not tell their parents when cyber bullying occurs 52%
Percent of teens who have had embarrassing or damaging pictures taken of themselves without their permission, often using cell phone cameras 11%

For the last eight years, I have traveled the nation as a Bully Prevention specialist and taught students and teachers ways to identify and stop bullying in their schools. In this time period, I have watched the problem grow bigger and bigger every year. To look into the eyes of students being targeted by bullying is heart-breaking. Their eyes are sad and vacant. Students all around me tell me they feel worthless and that they don’t belong on this planet. They are searching for reason to hang on. All this has been due to bullying.

The following cyberbullying stories are from youth and schools I have personally worked with in just the last six months.

Instagram: Instagram is a common app used among both youth and adults. It is a simple platform that appeals to everyone. But it can also be used to ruin someone’s life and reputation. In one case, a student stole pictures of their victim off her Facebook page. The student then photoshopped her head onto a naked woman’s body only to spread it all through school, to her family and friends. Due to the excessive bullying that occurred daily from this, she changed to another school. Problem was that students at the new school had already received the texts and she already had a reputation there as well. At age 14, not able to take it anymore, she committed suicide.

Yik Yak: Yik Yak is a free app for all smart phone owners. Users can create a handle (a name for themselves) yet they will remain anonymous. To sign up, you’re required to give permission to use your location so that you can see what people in a 5-mile radius are posting. Before you can begin, the app states that cyber-bullying is against the rules and the consequence for it is suspension. But since that the app is anonymous, cyber-bullies simply sign up again and continue posting insulting yaks (comments). Because there is no way to identify the source, posts are often cruel and hurtful. Posts can be commented on as well, so a mean comment can be backed up my many users agreeing to the content. Posts can also be spread like wild fire. One vicious comment about a student can be seen by hundreds of other students in seconds. An example of this is a middle school boy who was being threatened by hundreds of people that he is going to be beat up the next day at school. Terrified to go to school the next day, he still showed up only to be beaten by seven other students. He was hospitalized with two broken arms and an unrecognizable face. Other results from these yaks have also been school lock downs due to anonymous bomb and shooting threats to the school.

Burn Book: In the popular movie, Mean Girls, there is a journal called a Burn Book that is used to write gossip and insulting comments about people and send it around the school for others to read. Inspired by this, the app Burnbook has been created. It is basically the same thing, just online, and can anonymously be read by everyone and written by anyone.

An example of a burn book conversation can look like this:

Post 1: What do you guys think about the new girl at school?

Person 1: She is a ugly b*t*h and nobody likes her

Person 2: She is a h* and f*c*e* every guy at this school

Person 3: She should kill herself

It is simply a wide-open forum that encourages others to say mean, spiteful and damaging insults. It glorifies rumors, gossip and defamation of others.

We have a generation of youth that have never known life without technology. It is readily available yet is does not come with instructions or guidelines. Young people are like sponges; they soak up the world around them for guidance on how to be and act in this world. When we create social media outlets that design and encourage platforms for mistreatment of others, we are teaching them that disrespect is the way to treat each others. Young people deserve to live in a world in which they feel safe, wanted, and unafraid. Let’s rise as a community and nation and model this world for them. Our children are counting on us.

How can I help prevent my child from being cyberbullied?

  • Learn about the sites your children visit, what apps they have on their phone, as well as their online activities. Periodically, ask your children to show you their profile pages. Consider obtaining their passwords to these outlets.
  • Remind them to never give out their personal information online, such as their phone number and address.
  • There is a common misconception among teens that once they delete a picture or text, it is gone forever. Yet, in a short amount of time, someone else can take a picture or screen shot and now they have the picture forever. Help them to understand deleting something from the Internet doesn’t mean that it is truly gone.

Online resources for parents:

Consider parental control software, which permits you to monitor and identify if your child is being bullied or engaging in cyberbullying behavior.

Movie:  Cyberbully: An ABC Family Original movie depicting the rapid effect cyberbullying has on a child when they become the victim of online bullying.


Tisha Marina Bernard_sqTISHA MARINA BERNARD has a Master’s Degree in Human Development with an emphasis on Social Change & Human Services.  She is the founder of the I Choose Peace Academy, whose educational mission is to empower young leaders with the courage, compassion, and leadership skills to create peace within themselves and their peers.  As a bully prevention specialist she has worked with hundreds of schools across the nation to help create a safe school environment.  She is also the recipient of the 2009 Season for Non-Violence Local Hero Award from the Common Peace Center for the Advancement of Non-Violence.  An avid hooper and featured artist in the documentary The Hooping Life, she also uses dance and dance education as a vehicle for social change. More information on her work can be found at