Cyberbullying Most Often Hurts Girls; These Women Work To Stop It

New Education Department research shows girls are bullied online more often than boys, but behind the data are thousands of stories of teen desperation to belong, like this one: A California teenager was kicked out of her friend group, and to get back in, she had to attract an impossibly high number of followers and “likes” on her Instagram account.

To meet the arbitrary threshold the mean girls set, “she spent hours each day creating fake accounts so she could like her own pictures and follow herself,” said Kind Campaign co-founder Lauren Paul, who met the “distraught and broken” girl at a school assembly to help girls cope with bullying and cyberbullying.

Paul and the organization’s co-founder, Molly Thompson, hear hundreds of heart-tugging stories like that every year at Kind Campaign assemblies, which are offered free to any school district requesting them. The programs reach about 300 schools a year, and in the decade since they founded the anti-bullying organization, Paul and Thompson, trained ambassadors and trained teachers have presented about 2,500 assemblies around the world.

The two women are not surprised by the recent report from the National Education Center Statistics, the research arm of the U.S. Department of Education. It shows not only an uptick in cyberbullying nationwide, but also that three times as many girls as boys report being harassed online or by text message.

The survey showed that one in five middle and high school students reported in the 2016-17 school year that they had been physically bullied in incidents involving everything from rumor-mongering to being excluded from the group to threats and physical violence. That’s about the same number of students who said they’d been bullied in a similar survey in the 2014-15 school year.

But what did change was cyberbullying, an insidious, often anonymous form of online harassment that’s been called nothing short of digital terrorism. It’s so bad that a disturbingly long list of adolescents and teenagers, many of them girls, have taken their lives to escape it.

During the two years between reports, online harassment was up 4 percent overall, to 15.3 percent from 11.5 percent. Among girls, cyberbullying increased by 5 percent over the two-year period — to 21 percent from 16 percent in 2014-15.

The rise in cyberbullying corresponds with increased time spent on social media, which is so intertwined with how kids communicate today that many teens can’t even bring themselves to unplug when they go to bed.

“It’s been interesting to be in school hallways over the last decade, and see first-hand the evolution of social media and cyberbullying, and how it affects self-esteem and interpersonal skills,” Paul said. “When we started, there was really just Facebook, and now we see platforms like Instagram, Snapchat and all these other worlds that students and teens live so much of their lives on.”

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is concerned about how connected teens are to their devices, too.

A study in 2017 found that social media use among teens more than doubled from 2009 to 2015, and also that teens active on social media sites for at least five hours a day were 70 percent more likely to have suicidal thoughts or actions then their peers who spent just an hour a day looking at social media.

There’s Always A Girl Crying In The Corner

Kind Campaign assemblies are exclusively for girls to combat what’s known as girl-against-girl bullying. When girls bully, it can be nothing short of psychological warfare. Groups of them bomb cellphone of the odd-girl-out with vicious text messages or post embarrassing, sometimes altered, photos on social media sites and websites. With boys, bullying is often, but not always, more physically aggressive.

Regardless of the city or the country where the Kind Campaign assemblies take place, “certain girls will be crying in the corner, and we know we’re going to have a deeper conversation,” Paul said.

The girl who created fake social media accounts to earn her way back into her social group was among them. Paul and Thompson pulled her aside and told her not to hitch her self-worth to their assessment. It didn’t mean anything, they said.

“But the reality is, it means everything to a girl that age,” Paul said, noting that it’s tough enough for girls to know they’ve been excluded, but to see social media posts of birthday parties, sleepovers and other events they weren’t invited to only makes them feel more isolated and vulnerable.

“The first thing we told her is that she wasn’t alone in her experience,” Thompson said. “When people experience bullying, it’s common to think you’re the only one going through that. With cyberbullying, you feel that isolation even more — it’s you and your phone.

“What she was going through — even though it seemed like her entire world, and it feels like this is it for her — is one chapter in her story,” Thompson continued. “It’s hard to see yourself outside of what’s happening in the hallways and what’s taking place on your phone, but there is so much beauty ahead of her, and the things they were putting her through was not a reflection of her, but who they are.”

‘We Have To Do Something’

No one understands what it is to be bullied by girls more than the now 32-year-old Paul and 31-year-old Thompson. They met as students at Pepperdine University in Malibu, California, and learned each other had been bullied by other girls when they were younger. What began as a documentary — “Finding Kind” — evolved into Kind Campaign.

As they shared their experiences as teenagers, the two women decided “we have to do something,” Paul said.

Their experiences with bullying give them the credibility to tell their audiences that what’s happening in the moment doesn’t define them.

Paul was in middle school when she her friends began excluding her. It started with a rumor and “turned into two years of torture,” she said.

Paul’s experience was no worse than what many girls go through. But that didn’t make it less terrible. It led to “severe depression, which turned into an eating disorder, which turned into an attempted suicide in seventh grade, all revolving around this idea I didn’t belong,” she said.

“I know they didn’t have an idea of the toll it was taking,” she said. “That’s why we let girls know how important it is when dealing with any of this to talk to someone, how important it is to reach out for help.”

Thompson, who endured bullying throughout her junior year in high school, at least got an apology from one of the girls who had been taunting her. She’s not sure what triggered the girl’s remorse.

“Likely, there were things going on in her life that I didn’t know about — her own insecurities, jealousies, trauma,” Thompson said. “Everyone has a story. The people being bullied have a story. The bullies have a story.”

But the apology was life-changing, she said, and that’s one of the reasons she and Paul have incorporated the “Kind Apology” in their program.

“I love being able to share that story,” Thompson said. “I was able to accept her apology and see there was light at the end of the tunnel, that this wasn’t going to be my entire life,” she said. “At the time, I thought the bullying was what defined me, how I would feel from that day on.”

Some of the girls want to make public apologies in front of their peers, while others choose to be more private in their apologies to “someone they haven’t spoken to in two years because of some drama,” Thompson said. “There’s a mending of friendships, hugs and tears.”

One thing the two women are careful not to do is point fingers or attach labels like “mean girl” or “bully.”

“We’ve all been affected by things said and done; we’ve all played a role,” Thompson said.

They decided to focus on girl-against-girl bullying and, especially, cyberbullying because they believe it is fueled by the insecurities women and girls harbor, whether about body image, skill sets or talents, not being the best player on a sports team or feeling they don’t have a core group of friends.

When they ask the girls if they feel insecure, “every single hand goes up,” Paul said. “This is universal.

“We let the girls know we are all in this together, and rather rather than beat each other up, we should be supporting one another and celebrating and supporting our beautiful, unique differences. There’s a light-bulb moment when we say that, and a shift in conversation.”

How Cyberbullying Is Different

A post on social media can have an audience that is infinite, and with the ability to capture screenshots, a mean post can haunt bullying targets into their adulthoods and beyond — something the women said 12- and 13-year-olds don’t think about.

“It can immediately go out to such a large audience,” Paul said. “A photo can be distributed to 500 people at one time, instantly, and the repercussions are enormous. We share with the girls at the end of the assemblies how important it is to represent yourselves and others in a kind and respectful way.”

The National Center for Education Statistics report — Student Reports of Bullying: Results From the 2017 School Crime Supplement to the National Crime Victimization Survey — bears out what experts have told Patch during our two-year reporting project on bullying and cyberbullying: Bullies hiding behind their computer or phone screens feel emboldened to say and do things they wouldn’t do in person.

Citing data from the 2017 School Crime Supplement report, the researchers said:

The Menace Of Bullies: Patch Advocacy Reporting Project

As part of a national reporting project, Patch has been looking at society’s roles and responsibilities in bullying and a child’s unthinkable decision to end their own life in hopes we might offer solutions that save lives.

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From No Bully, Patch News Partner

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