Unlikely Heroes: What to do about cyberbullying (that might actually work)
One of the weaknesses with much of the writing on cyberbullying is that it generally focuses on the adult side: Do parents know what their kids are doing to each other? What can parents do? Why aren’t schools doing more? What protective laws are in place?
All of these details are important, of course. We’ve even written a guide of our own to address these issues. But such guides are usually written to a group of people (parents) who, through personal maturity and growth, have forgotten what it’s like to be a teen.
See, grownups often forget just how much teens value the opinions of their peers. They forget that, in some cases, a teen would do anything to get attention—to feel loved and accepted. And if they feel rejected, or become a target for harassment, some will go to even more drastic lengths to make it stop.
Enter Submit: The Documentary. Like most resources of its nature, Submit covers the basics: heartbreaking interviews with devastated parents, the actions parents can take, and a reality check about the failure of some of these solutions. (No child will refrain from cyberbullying because a law was passed in their state, for example.) But Submit‘s biggest strength lies in its interviews—not with experts (although those are useful), but with teens who have seen, experienced, or even participated in bullying themselves.
The Role of Sexting
One of Submit‘s main focus points is the role of sexting (or slut-shaming) as a feeder system into cyberbullying. In the language of adults, this is child pornography. For teens, however, it’s a ploy for attention from the sexter and a status symbol for the recipient.
As one boy explains, he and his male friends share sexted photos of girls with each other as virtual trophies: “They’d be like, ‘What girls have you been with’ [...] and you’d just show them the picture, and they’d be like, ‘That’s what you got? Look at this.’” This sentiment is echoed later by an even younger boy, who explains that his 13-year-old friend passed on a sext from his 14-year-old girlfriend. (His response? “That’s nasty.”)
This, of course, can quickly go south if (or, more often, when) the sext is shared. In Submit, the teens interviewed share experiences of other teens who have been traumatized by this, and the suicide of Hope Witsell is one of the central narratives of the documentary.
Why do these crimes simply result in smirks and giggles from the kids on-camera? And why are they perpetuated? According to the teens themselves, it’s because they don’t understand the consequences until they experience them for themselves. Schools, for example, don’t go far enough to address the issue. ”They constantly tell you, oh, be careful what you post,” explains one girl. “But they don’t really tell you what will happen if you’re not careful.”
What Isn’t the Answer?
Does this mean that improved school programs are the answer? Not really. One school principal scoffs at the idea that schools have funds available to allocate to the necessary programs.
Another expert points out that that parents aren’t always the answer either. On the victim’s side, for example, Megan Meier’s mother explains in Submit that she had an active level of control over her daughter’s MySpace account…but that didn’t stop her from friending a bully.
One high school girl explains to the filmmakers the tactics she’d take to make sure her devices were “clean” before a parental inspection (a compelling argument to starting kids on Accountability early). A boy agreed with parental monitoring in theory—”if I had a daughter I’d definitely monitor”—but was pretty certain his mother had no idea of what happens on Facebook.
As for the parents of the bullies, Submit postulates that addressing them may in fact simply make the situation worse, as many kids bully because they are dealing with abusive situations at home.
What is the Answer?
Instead, Submit argues that the solution lies with the bystanders, the silent observers of bullying behaviors. And while it doesn’t offer particular examples of empathy training programs that work, the documentary’s overall emphasis on the teen perspective makes it clear: if thoughtless teens are the perpetrators, then empathetic teens can be the heroes.
Sameer Hinduja of the Cyberbullying Research Center explains:
Bystanders have a humongous role to play. [...] Maybe you aren’t the victim or the target, and maybe you aren’t the offender, but I promise you, you talk to any teenager, and yes, they’ve seen this happen at their school amongst people that they know. [...] I think bystanders absolutely can be heroes because they’re coming to the rescue of their friends.
Asked to elaborate, Hinduja cites the Golden Rule as an example of empathy and the role of bystanders.
“What is the Golden Rule?” the narrator asks.
Hinduja blinks. “The Golden Rule is just doing unto others as you would have them do unto you.”
Visit Submit: The Documentary to learn more about cyberbullying or to request a free screening.