THE BLOG

Confronting Cyber Violence in the Digital Age

04/25/2013 05:35 pm ET | Updated Jun 25, 2013
AP

It's time to combat cyber bullying, and the devastating affects it's having on our children.

Last Labor Day, while millions of Americans were firing up their barbeques to enjoy the last weekend of summer, a nightmare was unfolding in the town of Saratoga, California. Fifteen-year-old Audrie Pott was at a party with her classmates (though, notably, without adult supervision) when she was sexually assaulted by three boys she had considered her friends while she was under the influence of alcohol.

The sheer horror of sexual assault is enough to fracture the psyche of a teenage girl; but it was exacerbated by the fact that pictures of the attack then found their way onto the Internet, where they were viewed by her classmates, her friends, and her family. Eight days later, overwhelmed with grief, humiliation, and the torment of knowing that this vicious attack had been made public for all to see, this beautiful, smart, capable young woman, whose entire life was still ahead of her, committed suicide.

This horrible situation would have been tragic enough had it been an isolated incident -- one that is relatively uncommon in our society, and which stands out because of its rarity. But when it comes to relational aggression online, the sad truth is that every day, thousands of teenagers are victimized by cyber bullies who rob them of their personal dignity and sense of self worth. When the emotional and physical trauma of sexual assault is compounded by the effects of cyber bullying, the result too often has been teenaged victims who take their own lives.

It is difficult to imagine the pain that Audrie must have endured in the days leading up to her suicide. Unless and until our society recognizes cyber bullying for what it is, the suffering of thousands of silent victims will continue.

In most cases, these cruel acts are carried out by the very people whom the victims feel closest to and whose opinions matter to them the most: their friends and classmates. The traumatizing effects of cyber bullying on the emotional wellbeing of teenagers are becoming increasingly clear in our society. It leaves its victims wounded in ways that are impossible to see and difficult to heal.

Cyber bullies can hide behind a mask of anonymity online, and do not need direct physical access to their victims to do unimaginable harm. The ease with which disgusting pictures of what was, in fact, a criminal offense, were spread online demonstrates the urgent need for action. Instead of contacting the police or trying to help Audrie, viewers simply kept forwarding and commenting on these gruesome images. This makes it possible for cyber bullies to torment their victims on a nearly constant basis -- leaving no escape from the trauma, no refuge from the bullies, and no sense of safety.

At Girl Scouts, we are committed to raising awareness about the terrible effects of cyber bullying, and to teaching girls how to recognize the signs of bullying of any sort and extricate themselves or another from a bad situation before it spirals out of control and ends in tragedy. By arming girls with the skills, foresight and confidence they need to identify and confront bullying behavior, we create a world of engaged leaders who refuse to be victimized or to sit idly by while another suffers.

Our BFF (Be a Friend First) initiative teaches middle school girls relational and leadership skills to stop bullying behavior when it happens and prevent it from happening in the first place. BFF uses role playing, creative writing, games, quizzes and discussion exercises through which girls explore challenging issues online and off, like peer pressure, stereotyping, gossip, and cliques. As part of BFF, girls also identify their own community's needs on bullying to create and lead projects in their schools and communities to tackle region-specific issues.

A new generation of digital natives, youth who never knew a world without the Internet, are coming of age. But like driving a car, using the Internet can be a dangerous activity if we are not teaching our kids how to use it responsibly. What gets posted online is not short term, and is open for easy misinterpretation. Messages and pictures spread faster through the Internet than they ever could by word of mouth. Kids need to learn that if they would not say something out loud, they should not say it on the Web either, where the effects can be compounded many times over by the spread of data virally across social media platforms.

Girls are particularly susceptible to cyber bullying. They spend more time online than boys, and are perhaps more likely to take to heart comments made by others in the digital space. BFF offers a holistic approach to confronting cyber bullying, by encouraging girls to behave respectfully online and off. Adults in girls' lives are also encouraged to be as aware of their daughters' online world as they are her real world. That includes knowing who their daughter is with and where she is going in cyberspace, as well as how all of her relationships may be affecting her.

The true tragedy of the suicide of Audrie Pott is how isolated she obviously felt. Kids need to know that they have an outlet for their feelings; friends, parents, teachers and others who are there to help them, and who will provide a vital, insulating support system from the plague of online bullying. Our schools and communities must address relational aggression (which includes cyber-bullying) as seriously as it has "traditional" school yard bullying in the past; and understand that it requires a different type of intervention.

As the CEO of the premiere leadership organization in the world for girls, I am calling on all Americans to step in and step up. That you might be less knowledgeable in the digital space as an adult should not deter you from living in that space with your daughter. Each of us must take ownership of the online safety and wellbeing of our daughters, by calling out and confronting bullying behavior wherever we see it. Engaging in the online lives of our children, and joining Girl Scouts everywhere in being a friend first.

Before one more precious life is lost forever.