I woke up this morning to learn another teen’s life could have been saved. Brandy Vela 18, of Texas City, Texas chose to end her life because she could no longer take the relentless bullying and torture she received on social media. Her bullies created fake dating websites with her photo, lied about her age and stated she was giving sex for free. They used an app to create fake social media accounts to harass her. Incidents were reported to the school and law enforcement without relief. Brandy was a senior in high school and I can’t help but wonder how things might have played out if all students were Cyber Citzenship educated and equipped with the tools needed to deal with teen digital pressures.
Brandy’s last text…"I love you so much just remember that please and I'm so sorry for everything.”
According to nobullying.com An average teen often sends 60 text messages a day. These are around double the rates for adults. Girls in the age group of 14 to 16 years old send 100 messages a day. Over 7.5 million Facebook users are under 13 years old. Over 81 per cent of teens admit that bullying is easier to get away with online. About 20 per cent of kids that are cyber bullied think about suicide. 69% of teen own their own computer or cell phone and 42% of youth report being bullied online. Let’s add in the factor that many youth do not report being bullied.
Social media is not going away. In fact, technology is advancing at a rate that even parents can’t stay up to date. As I travel across the U.S. speaking to young girls, I always ask by a raise of hands how many have social media accounts such as Instagram, Facebook, Snapchat, YouTube, etc.… The clear majority are using these applications without the proper education to keep them safe, confident and cyber smart online. I am sure you’re not surprised; however, the majority I am speaking of includes third grade girls. Now do I have your attention? Depression amongst youth is on the rise with contributing factors because most young girls validate their self-worth through the lens of social media.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), suicide is the third leading cause of death among young people resulting in approximately 4,400 deaths every year.
It saddens me to read about youth who feel suicide is the solution to end their pain. The struggles and pressures for tweens and teens in today’s media driven society are compounded by social media. Generation Z is the first to be born into a society that predominantly communicates digitally. This communication is not limited to their neighborhood or school, it’s global. We are giving the unfettered access to the cyber-world to children as young as eight-years-old. Parental controls may or may not be in place but what happens to a digital savvy tween when they act on the pressure to fit in and be accepted? Parents have not experienced the pressures felt in the trenches of “likes”, followers, perfect photos, expectations from family - school - sports - extracurricular activities, FOMO (fear of missing out) and enough positive comments to “feel” validated daily. Girls tend to view their on-line presence as representative of their “highlight reel”, and they unfortunately are ascribing the highlight reel fiction as a real-life perspective. When they feel, their reel doesn’t measure up, depression and self-harm can sneak up on anyone, becoming the beginning of a downward spiral that may engulf her.
My personal cyber-bullying experience was like living in a fish bowl. I felt everyone could see in and I thought the world, my world, was on display even though the harsh words that had been spewed for all to see were lies. I wanted to move to another country, a place where no one knew me. My parents are the best parents anyone could wish for but as close as we were, I managed to hide my tortured soul from them…at least for awhile. Thankfully we moved, not because of my cyber bullying experience, but because my father’s work transferred us back to Texas. The girl who bullied me and made my life miserable apologized on my last day of class in that very small town. Her reason for cyber-bullying me came from jealousy and I never understood how her actions made HER feel better. It didn’t. She was miserable too. It wasn’t long after being back in Texas that I began to listen more closely to my peers and realized just how much youth need a good perspective on building confidence, cyber education and a positive self-worth in today’s volatile digital world.
Parents who grew up in a non-digital world describe similar pressures of fitting in, popularity and the girl-on-girl drama. The circle was much smaller and was limited to whispers, note passing, land line phone calls, and best friend sleep overs. One could go through school and oftentimes not realize they were being talked about. Self-worth was defined through family and mentors, not text messages, screen shots and “likes”.
Our media is full of organizations and educational information that focus on the importance and awareness of cyber education and youth empowerment. This is a positive step in the right direction but it’s simply not enough. I was honored this past year to work with the Texas Education Agency on creating a Cyber Citizenship Curriculum that is now approved in all Texas public high schools. This course is currently an elective with graduating credits. While this is a beginning, I believe EVERY middle school and high school throughout the U.S. must educate their students to lead with a positive digital footprint. This alone will not stop bullies, but it will teach and empower youth, giving them the tools and positive mindset to navigate our digital world with success.
“When youth are confident, educated and know their self-worth, they can lead their generation, creating positive digital footprints and role models for our future.” Lauren Galley
Today I am using my voice for those who can no longer stand up for digital education.
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