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Erasing Cyberbullying, One Keystroke At A Time

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NEW YORK -- In a sweltering classroom in The Mary Louis Academy of Jamaica Estates, Queens, freshman Regina Maghirang, 15, sat down at a computer, logged onto Facebook and hit delete.

More than once.

Her friends did it, too. More than 200 of them cycled in and out of the room during their free periods on Friday for Delete Day, a student-led initiative at Mary Louis designed to target cyberbullying.

The students were sprucing up their images, trying to live up to the motto of their Catholic school’s annual theme: “Women of dignity, making a difference, through faith, service and inclusive love.”

For Maghirang, Delete Day provided a comfortable way of cleaning up her online footprint and moving beyond her past. In elementary school, she was a victim of cyberbullying.

Hers is a tale that might resonate with anyone who attended an American elementary school, differing only in that the emboldening effects of the Internet amplified her pain.

Maghirang had a crush on a boy. She told this to her friend, who promised not to date him. Her friend broke her promise. Maghirang got mad, and let their mutual friends know it.

They sided with the friend, Maghirang said, because “she was a popular social butterfly.” The backlash hurt: they cursed her on AIM. They created a Facebook group about her. Maghirang was passionate about singing, so after belting the lead in a mass, they told her to get off the stage. They told her she was fake. Their targeting was relentless.

“I just wanted to run away from it all,” Maghirang said.

In the age of cyber-warfare and privacy concerns, parents raising children often worry about exposure on the Internet. The outlets for oversharing -- and, in some cases, self-sabotaging -- are countless: Google, Facebook, AIM, mass texting, MySpace, FormSpring, Xanga and LiveJournal, to name a few.

And the more extreme consequences of their use have been widely documented. In March, The New York Times published an article chronicling the life-changing aftermath of a sexting episode in Washington state, where a nude photo an eighth grader texted to her boyfriend made its way onto the cellphone screens of hundreds of students. A year earlier, police were investigating the role that the question-and-answer site Formspring played in a 17-year-old Long Islander’s suicide.

Growing awareness of these issues, and of escalating negativity in online forums, led Mary Louis Academy’s English Teacher and Service Homeroom Program Coordinator Allyson Gutierrez to bring in Alison Trachtman Hill -- founder and managing partner of Critical Issues for Girls -- for a conference on cyberbullying in October.

“It was so hard to get them to stop,” Gutierrez said. “Any of the typical high school drama was intensified by the anonymity of the Internet. It became clear to us that the kids felt strongly about doing something about it.”

Discussions after the conference, which included a component about turning ideas into actions, turned into planning sessions for Gutierrez’s service homeroom. After much discussion, the idea for the first-ever Delete Day bubbled up.

“We encouraged them to go through their friends, comments, groups and pictures on Facebook, and to delete their Formsprings,” Gutierrez said. “We want them to delete anything that doesn’t reflect their true image.” She said she was surprised to see complete Facebook account deletions as well.

When the day finally came after much planning, it was clear the students were in charge. They created pins and baked cookies to help the cause. More than 200 students cycled in and out, mostly deleting things, with some lingering to chat with each other on Facebook. They picked up pins with the emoticon inspired logo “:D” with a D for Delete and pledges, saying: “I, [name], am a woman of dignity at The Mary Louis Academy, and I pledge to become a cyber-citizen.”

Deletions focused on clearing one’s image for the sake of the Internet-savvy prospective employer of college admissions officer, as well as pulling anything that may have been offensive or hurtful to others.

“What should I delete?” asked a student in a pleated skirt, black tights, boots and a polo shirt emblazoned with the school logo.

“Delete friends! Groups! Photos!” advised Gabby Mostaras, a 17-year-old senior who helped organize the event.

On the way out, students also signed a letter taped to the wall that urged City Councilmember Julissa Ferreras to expand New York’s anti-bullying law to include specific sanctions on cyberbullying.

Trachtman Hill said she was encouraged by the high turnout. “I have a feeling this will resonate around the country," she said.

The youth-led aspect of the initiative is key to its success, said Nancy Willard, director of the Center for Safe and Responsible Internet Use. “The big challenge we’re facing in the area of Internet safety is that most of the initiatives were created with law-enforcement funding,” she said. Their oft-simple rules fall flat to teenage ears, she continued, adding that messages driven by kids are most effective.

Jason Rzepka, vice president of public affairs for MTV, also lauded the initiative, covering it on mtv.com’s "act" page. “It’s empowering young people to take ownership of the issue and to take control of it,” he said. MTV’s A Thin Line campaign targets digital drama. “Kids control this. This is not drilling wells in Malawi,” he said. “Cyber-abuse is the sum of the decisions young people make every day.”

But Greg Hall, a professor of psychology at Bentley University who teaches a class on cyber-psychology, was skeptical. “It may be effective for the individual students who are doing the deleting, but I don’t think it’s going to affect those individuals who are conducting the bullying,” he said.

Trachtman Hill noted that one student told her she used to be the bully. “Now I’m one of the people organizing this,” Trachtman Hill recalled her saying.

Junior Heather Calix said she took the time out of her free period to delete her Formspring, MySpace and party photos because of her awareness of news coverage of the consequences of cyberbullying. And it hurt one of her friends: “She wanted to drop out of school,” Calix said. “People targeted her on AIM. They called her fat. She didn’t want to go to school, and it hurt me to see her like that.”

The students ran the event -- encouraging deletions, conducting a survey, tallying the results, giving out pledges and, of course, policing for recreational Facebook use. Among them was Lauren Alvarez, an 18-year-old senior, who worries about what her 16-year-old sister does online.

“People were posting pictures that were inappropriate,” she said. “They put party pictures up -- they were pretending to drink and smoke, they showed high, short skirts. I wasn’t brought up that way.” She herself deleted some groups that she “Liked” on her Facebook page -- including, “I’m a woman of dignity … LOL jk, I go to Mary Louis” -- realizing that what was funny to her might be offensive to others.

Freshman Emma Soriano said that the event made her think twice about posting revealing photos. “I had a picture of myself in my underwear. My face isn’t showing, but I’m deleting it,” she said, before clicking “Delete This Photo” and obliterating the existence of a much-commented on picture taken in April. “It’s not showing dignity.” She also untagged posts that included some friends but excluded others in declarations of affection. “They may feel left out, and that can hurt too,” she said.

Another freshman, Natalie Artiles, deleted photos with “kissy faces.” She said she might not have done it on her own. “Seeing everyone here gives me inspiration,” she said. “It’s fun right now. It’s funducation.”

Maghirang, the student targeted in elementary school, also took solace in her peers. “Deleting old messages really makes it feel like a new start,” she said. She’s now in a new school with new friends -- who think deleting offensive material off the Internet is cool.

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