The Unfortunate Reality: How Cyberbullying Now Defines Our Culture
As Millennials, we are a generation lucky to say we watched many great phenomenons rise to popularity.
We are, without a doubt, the generation of social media.
As we grew up, so did the Internet. We lived in a world with dial-up songs, and we now live in a world where you can order a pizza by tweeting an emoji.
There's obviously been a lot of good that has come from being the technological demographic of young adults.
But as with all good things, this one came with a price.
The price of being the generation of social media is clear: We are also the generation of cyber-bullying.
A new horror and art film hybrid, aptly titled "#Horror," recently made waves with its trailer.
The film, which stars Chloë Sevigny, is a commentary about the horrors that come from cyber-bullying. The site IMDb states the film is inspired by true events revolving around social media.
Here's the thing: Cyberbullying is not limited to the iPhone age, but it has gotten much worse over the past few years.
Before Instagram, Facebook and Twitter, there was the good ol' AOL Instant Messenger.
Many young professionals look back on AIM with twinges of nostalgia, remembering the time spent crafting the perfect screen name, profile info (complete with Dashboard Confessional song lyrics) and away messages (OuT, CaLL tHe CeLL).
However, for some, the trip down memory lane isn't all that rosy.
Take Kayla,* for example, a 20-something from New York City, who has horrific memories of high school, all of which incidentally took place at home.
When I spoke with her about the cyberbully who tormented her, it was clear she was still affected.
This is almost a full decade later.
Kayla didn't have a lot of friends at her high school, and she usually tried to keep to herself. She was often a target for bullying because she was "different" from most of the other girls.
She dressed differently, cut her hair short and didn't participate in the same activities as her peers. She had a lot of friends who went to different schools, and had a reputation for being a "bad" girl, even though this couldn't have been further from the truth.
One day, she got an IM from a username she didn't recognize. The message read, "F*ck you, slut. I'm going to kill you."
Kayla blocked the user immediately, but continued to get IMs from strangers, all with the same hate speech and violent language.
Even when she changed her own username, the bullying continued. Her email was also spammed, causing her to avoid going on her computer unless it was completely necessary.
This went on for months before she even told anyone.
I asked Kayla why she waited so long to report the messages.
Her response was sadly common. She was afraid whoever was behind the messages would find out if she told, and that things would get worse. She hoped that by continuing to block users and avoid going online, she would put a stop to it on her own.
Eventually, with the involvement of the teachers and guidance counselors at her school, Kayla's cyberbully was identified. When Kayla learned who was behind the hateful messages, she couldn't understand why this person was targeting her.
"I'd literally never done anything to them," she told me. "I still don't get it."
This incident took place in 2003. Since then, it's gotten much, much worse.
Modern-day cyberbullying has a laundry list of horrific statistics.
According to a recent study, around 50 percent of all teens feel they have been cyberbullied.
But only one in 10 teens report the bullying to a teacher or parent. The number of teens who are suffering silently is staggering, but the number of teens who have chosen to end this pain is even worse.
There are way too many reports of teens who have committed suicide after unrelenting battles with cyberbullying.
Some of these reports go viral, like the Amanda Todd case in 2012. But for every viral video, there are dozens of names we never hear and dozens of stories that never cross our paths.
Part of the problem is there are so many shades of gray when it comes to cyberbullying. It's not always as black and white, as Kayla's situation was.
Sometimes, this bullying presents itself as a passive-aggressive tweet or a group text that purposely excludes one member of the social circle.
There are many layers to this phenomenon, and it has wreaked havoc on so many teen lives.
Despite the fact that most cyberbullying activity happens outside of school, it ends up making the students feel unsafe in school. As a teacher, I deal with dozens of cyberbullying cases every year.
I've seen almost everything, from students engaging in a Kardashian-style Twitter war to a student whose world was completely shattered when a picture she texted to a boy was circulated amongst the entire student body.
It's hard to pinpoint what the answer is. We all know cyberbullying is a problem. Even the teenagers know.
We have countless bullying prevention sessions and programs at our schools, and teenagers can always identify cruel behavior when asked.
Yet, they continue to do it. It's a vicious cycle that doesn't seem to be breaking anytime soon.
Of course, cyberbullying is not limited to teenagers. A new survey has shown nearly two-thirds of adults have also experienced Internet abuse. In some ways, we are worse than the teenagers.
We should be the role models.
Yet, we can be downright cruel to one another when we're hiding behind a computer or phone screen. Anyone who has ever written an article for the Internet knows what it means to be called awful names by complete strangers.
Luckily, there are steps being taken to stop cyber-bullying. Schools across the country have reformed their bullying laws to include language about social media-based bullying. Celebrities have stepped up to fight against cyber-bullies.
The Internet itself is also ready to lend a hand. A website called Need Help Now was designed specifically for victims of cyber-bullying. The website allows visitors to request a picture or video be taken down from the Internet, and also offers support for concerned friends and family.
But there's more to be done.
We may not want to admit it, but because we are the generation of social media, cyberbullying was born with us. Somewhere between AIM away messages and SmarterChild, we created cyberbullying.
Yes, our cruel IMs laced with Comic Sans fonts were ultimately the gateway to hate-filled group texts and bitter subtweets.
We are the ones who brought the harshest weapon into the lives of today's teenagers. We are the ones who put this tool in their hands. We can't just walk away from something like that.
Ultimately, this fight will take time, but we have to be committed and relentless.
We can't afford to have more news stories about teenagers ending their lives because of text messages, tweets and photographs.
We owe it to them. But we also owe it to ourselves.
*Names have been changed to protect privacy.