Cyberbullying. The very word makes parents cringe. These days, we not only have to worry about playground bullies, but also about mean kids who are lurking in cyberspace, waiting to strike out at vulnerable teens and tweens. Stories of teen depression and even suicide resulting from online bullying are in the news with alarming regularity. It’s enough to make parents want pull up stakes and move their families into the wilderness, far, far away from any Internet connection.
My teen and tween are both regular users of Instagram, a popular photo-sharing site. I overhear them chuckling over funny photos of their friends, and expressing happiness when someone “likes” their own posted pictures. For my kids at least, that particular social media platform has seemed to be relatively drama-free.
But one day, I received an email from my middle schooler’s principal. The school staff recently discovered that three Instagram accounts had been set up anonymously, bearing the school’s name. These accounts were named “Middle School Hate,” “Middle School Ugly Girls,” and “Middle School Gossip.” (The actual name of the school has been replaced with “middle school” for privacy.) The school staff asked parents and kids to come forward with information about the perpetrators of these sites.
When I talked with my daughter about the incident, she said that these Instagram accounts were “full of bad words” and were “really awful.” On the accounts, she explained, photos of students were posted, along with mean comments about the pictured kid. She said that the victims weren’t people she knew well, but that everyone at school was talking about it.
So far, this is the same cyberbullying narrative we’ve heard over and over. But this story is different. This time, kids fought back.
Multiple students posted comments on the “Hate” sites, telling the perpetrators that what they were doing was wrong, and asking them to stop. One enterprising young woman used her Instagram account to post positive messages about the victims. She wrote a full paragraph about each person, filled with compliments and love. My daughter reported that the “Ugly Girls” and “Gossip” accounts were also flooded with kind comments.
But students didn’t stop with comments. Infuriated by the bullying, a group of kids created a new Instagram page. This account also bore the school’s name, but instead of “Hate,” it was labelled “Love.” The bio on this public page read: “Everyone is beautiful in their own way, if more people were kind, less people would be hurt. Pass on the kindness, direct-message us for compliments.”
Within a day, the creators of the “Middle School Love” account were inundated with messages from students wanting to compliment others. Two of the comments posted read: “You shouldn’t care what people think about you, it doesn’t matter!” and “I think you are beautiful from the inside out!”
Girls labeled as ugly were told they were pretty, untruths were called out and kindness spread faster than juicy gossip. As the private messages poured in, there were even compliments for the complimenters, such as: “You are such an amazing person who is unafraid to stick up for someone!”
All of these positive, caring actions were generated and implemented without any adult help, before parents and school staff were even aware of the situation.
So what happened here? Was the public school system’s anti-bullying curriculum working? Had these kids taken the Taylor Swift Why You Gotta Be So Mean song to heart?
I’d like to think that all of the above is true. Or maybe it is more simple. Kids saw an injustice and they fought back. What I do know for sure is that this cyberbulling story gives me hope.