Safety

The Trouble with Social Media: Bullies

Cyber bullies

PHOTO © MONKEY BUSINESS IMAGES

Two years ago, Rebecca Sedwick, aged 12, died on Monday, Sept. 11, 2013, after leaping from a water tower at an abandoned cement plant in Lakeland, Fla.

A few hours before, Rebecca changed her name on a social media site to “That Dead Girl.”

When Rebecca failed to return home from school by 6 p.m., her sister, Summer Howard called their mother, who, in turn, checked with the school.

Typically, an automated system calls parents when students fail to show up for school. The system wasn’t working on the day Rebecca disappeared, and no one began looking for her until that evening.

Sheriff’s deputies searched for Rebecca into the early morning hours, finally discovering her body at 2:25 a.m. crumpled on the ground at the cement plant.

Rebecca’s mother told the Sheriff that cyber bullies had been tormenting the young girl.

In fact, the bullying had been going on for a year and a half. The bullies peppered Rebecca with despicable text messages saying things like: “You’re ugly,” “Why are you still alive?” “Go kill yourself.”

Sadly, Rebecca did.

“Cyber bullying is worse than physical bullying,” says Bruce A. Canal, CPP, director with the Security Solutions Group of Plainfield, Ind. “Many people don’t believe this, but it is true.”

How can that be? “Each type of bullying has a bully, a victim and witnesses,” continues Canal. “A physical bully punches you in the stomach and takes your lunch money. It hurts, but it ends there — at least for today.

“The difference between the two is that cyber bullying is 24 hours a day every day. It is always there. Then it is shared when the bullies retweet to others. The victim must live it and re-live it time and time again.

“I’ve worked with one 20 year-old victim who constantly finds a nude photo of herself on the Internet. It was put up years ago, and it never goes away. She finds it again and again.

“Don’t let anyone tell you that physical bullying and cyber bullying are the same. They are not. Cyber bullying causes constant, consistent pain.”

Onlinecollege.org recently collected some disturbing statistics about cyber bullying:

  • 42 percent of teenagers with Internet access say they have been cyber bullied at some point in the last year.
  • 1 in 10 kids under age 13 on Facebook say they have been bullied on that site — that’s 800,000 kids.
  • 1 in 3 kids say they have been threatened online.
  • Bullied kids are twice as likely to commit suicide as kids that aren’t bullied.
  • 1 in 5 teens that have been cyber bullied consider suicide.
  • Suicide is the third leading cause of teen deaths in the U.S.
  • 4,500 teens kill themselves every year.

The constant, consistent pain that comes with being cyber bullied can and all too often does lead to suicide and, sometimes, mass murder.

Thomas “T.J.” Lane III shot five students in February of 2012. Three died. Three of the students he shot had cyber bullied him, says Canal.

Identifying threats with social media

“So much emphasis is placed on security measures like access control and visitor management that we tend to forget the serious threats from some of the kids already inside the building,” Canal warns. “Monitoring social media can help us identify these threats before a gun comes to school or someone hangs himself or herself.”

It is important to take cyber bullying more seriously, says Canal. Law enforcement is far behind on this. Most police departments don’t look at social media, and those that do usually don’t use it for law enforcement. It is thought of as a way to stay in touch with the community during community events like festivals.

“In the aftermath of the marathon bombing, the Boston Police Department had a Twitter account, but only one officer was assigned to monitor it,” says Canal. “People burned up the Tweet lines, sharing information about the incident. Seven Tweets per second were coming across the line, and the single officer couldn’t keep up. Eventually, nine officers were monitoring Tweets, which indeed provided leads.”

School administrators are catching up. “They are pulling down metadata — the data that streams along with Tweets,” Canal says. “When was the Tweet posted? What IP address sent it? What servers did it pass through? Was it from a mobile device or a laptop? Were there blind copies? Where did they go?”

For administrators that are too busy, Canal’s company, Security Solutions Group, provides social media monitoring for schools through a Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) system. “The subscription service scans Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and other social media looking for certain words and phrases that have been found to indicate potential problems.

“When we find something, we send alerts to the school administrators, and they handle the problem as they see fit,” Canal says. “So far, our alerts have stopped two attempted suicides that students had posted. We have also found six guns — before they were brought to school.

“And we have found many, many cyber bullying events. As we’ve discussed, cyber bullying often leads to violence or suicide, so getting ahead of it by monitoring social media can save lives.”

Is social media just one more problem to deal with? That’s one way to look at it. Then again, it is also a way to keep up with students who do give up a lot of secrets on social media — secrets administrators and teachers can use to help prevent tragedies.

Keeping Up With Students On Social Media

What social media platforms are your students using? And don’t say Facebook and Twitter. “There are many different social media platforms that adults aren’t aware of,” says Suzanne Bernier, president of SB Crisis Consulting.

Students are sneaky about social media, too. “Kids know their parents are monitoring what they do on social media,” Bernier says. “They deal with that by having a site under their real name and another under a pseudonym. Their parents monitor the well-behaved sites with their real names.

Time was, administrators banned social media from schools. But this has changed. Since everyone has a smartphone or a tablet, it’s a waste of time to deny access. Instead, it is important to develop policies and procedures on how to use social media — when permissible during the day, and more importantly, during an emergency.

Social media posts can provide first responders with a sense of situational awareness during an emergency, especially if students and teachers have been trained to do that.

Bernier suggests that annual teacher development programs should bring experts in to talk about the latest social media trends and platforms. If you don’t know the sites and the tricks, you can’t monitor what students are doing.

Then again, there are times when students should use social media and email. “Every school has fire drills, active shooter drills and other kinds of emergency drills,” Bernier says. “Social media can be useful in all of these kinds of events.

“For instance, in an active shooter lockdown, students can notify their loved ones that they are safe by Facebook or texting.

“Of course, you should instruct them not to give away their location in the case of a lockdown.”

Bernier also encourages schools to practice social media communication drills, advising administrators to set procedures for using Social Media during an emergency.

Then pick a day and a time for a Facebook or Twitter drill — without telling students ahead of time,” she says. “Then come up with a scenario and ask the students to think back to the procedures and come up with a message and a recipient.

Like any drill, it’s important to go through the motions several times so that when the real thing comes along, every knows what to do.

This article originally appeared in the August 2015 issue of School Planning & Management.

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