It was a 12-year-old girl called Rebecca who first made me realise that cyberbullying was a serious problem. I was 13 when I read her story online, and she spurred me into action to do something about it.
Rebecca had been cyberbullied for a year and a half after getting into a feud with two other young women about a boy. On her walk to school one day, she decided she couldn’t take it anymore. She ended up climbing to the top of her town’s water tower and jumping off.
I’ve told that story so many times, but it never becomes easier. It’s unacceptable and heart-breaking. When I first read it, I was stunned. How could a girl younger than me be pushed to take her own life? I was cyberbullied growing up – for my unbecoming wardrobe and frizzy hair – but I didn’t realise this issue affected teenagers in a way that could be fatal.
It made me wonder why young people were doing this to each other. As a teen, I was curious as to why we would choose to make poor decisions that would harm others. I know that teens aren’t bad people, but I think that sometimes we have lapses of judgement where we don’t realise the significance of what we’re doing. I wanted to find out if there was a reason for this. So, I started to research the adolescent brain.
It wasn’t long before I came across this very interesting piece of research that likened teenagers’ pre-frontal cortex – the part of the brain that has been implicated in things like decision-making and moderating social behaviour – to a car without brakes.
Because the pre-frontal cortex is not yet fully developed, teens really struggle to make rational decisions and to go through the full decision-making process. In the heat of the moment, especially when emotions are involved, they make choices they later regret.
I wondered if there was a way to tap into this and to make kids think about what they were doing. That’s really where the idea for ReThink was born.
Giving teenagers a second chance
ReThink is a free app that I have developed that forces young people to reconsider before they post offensive messages on social media platforms. I conducted a study that looked at how teenagers who had the opportunity to rethink responded when they were about to post something offensive like “you are so ugly”, relative to teenagers who didn’t have that opportunity. What I found, after about nine months of study, was that when a teenager got a second chance to think about an offensive message they were about to post, more than 93 per cent of the time they decided not to post it. The overall willingness to post an offensive message dropped from 71.1 per cent to 4.7 per cent.
Of course, not all teenagers will have an app like this enabled on their device to make sure that they take the time to stop and think. This is why advocacy and education around cyberbullying is also crucial.
The role that teachers have to play is twofold. First, teachers need to make sure they are directly communicating the anti-cyberbullying message and focusing on the “cyber” aspect. Until recently, the primary focus has always been on bullying in general, but cyberbullying is different – because it can be insidious in nature.
A lot of teachers might have memories from school of a kid being bullied on the playground; when that kid went home, the bullying was finished and that’s where it ended. But that’s just not the world we live in today.
Teachers need to be constantly sending the message that you are what you say and if you want to be someone that you’re proud of then you should be saying things that you’re proud of. At the end of the day, teachers are big role models for teenagers such as me and when a teacher is constantly promoting a message like that, it does seep in.
Secondly, I think it’s really important for teachers to encourage their kids to be advocates. Part of the reason I’m here is that I had an amazing set of teachers and mentors to support me in my work. They told me: “You’re not too young: there’s no barrier that stops you doing what you want to do. You go for it and we’re going to have your back.” It’s really important to know that you have that support.
I would encourage teachers to tell kids to be fearless, to be brave. “Failure” is a scary word for a lot of kids because it is ingrained in us from a very young age that we must be perfect and be good at everything.
But if teachers can instead create a culture where students are not afraid to raise their hand, even when they are not sure of the answer, we will have a generation of young people who have the courage to think about how their words affect people and who will be more likely to reconsider before they post.
Trisha Prabhu attends Neuqua Valley High School in Naperville, Illinois. The ReThink app is available for free in the Google Play Store and the Apple App Store