Cyberbullying gets an airing at the Y

“Technology is fantastic,” said Sen. Toni Boucher (R-26) at Cablevision’s “Internet Smarts” presentation at the Wilton Family Y last Wednesday, Aug. 13. “It keeps families connected, and does so much good. But it can do so much bad. As adults, we expect that. It’s not fair when we expect younger children to understand all the differences.”

Sponsored by Cablevision’s “Power to Learn” year-long public service initiative, these “Internet Smarts” programs have taken place throughout the Northeast this school year, from West Nyack, N.Y., to Parsippany, N.J. “Power to Learn” is dedicated to integrating technology into education, and through it Cablevision has provided its full suite of Optimum video, high-speed Internet and digital voice-over-cable service for free to schools in the company’s service area in Connecticut, New York, and New Jersey.

Also present at the event were Congressman Jim Himes (D-Conn.) and state Rep. Gail Lavielle (R-143), who shared insights and personal anecdotes involving cyberbullying and Internet safety with around 100 children in fifth through ninth grades in the Y’s Free-to-Be, Teen Camp, and Counselor-in-Training programs.

Before speaking on the subject, Mr. Himes asked for a show of hands for how many children were subscribed to certain social media outlets, such as Snapchat, ask.fm, Instagram, and Facebook. For each site, especially Facebook, almost every child’s hand was raised.

Over the course of the hour-long presentation, the legislators upheld the sentiments that cyberbullying is never the victim’s fault, that not intercepting bullying makes one complicit in the behavior, and that it often takes a group to show a bully the error of his or her ways.

“Cyberbullying can go on all night long,” Mr. Himes said. “In the school yard, maybe two or three people are involved with the bullying. Online bullying means many more people can be involved. You want to be the person who says ‘I’m not going to be a part of this’ and ‘I’m going to tell my friends not to be a part of this.’ Think hard about what you do online. It will follow you.”

The children were also reminded of the permanence of their online interactions during the presentation. Mr. Himes put it simply: “Stuff online, taunting, stupid pictures … it stays there.”

Ms. Lavielle related to campers her own tribulations with bullying, citing an experience between herself and her childhood friends Mary Lou and Claudia.

“We did everything together, but three is a difficult number. Mary Lou and Claudia were talking about me, and when you hear your best friends talking about you, your heart goes in your stomach. I cried at home. We never hung out again. They said it behind my back, but I knew what it was.”

Although she has since reconnected and reconciled with Mary Lou, Ms. Lavielle recognizes how heartbreaking bullying and exclusion can be for children, and tied this into the issue of cyberbullying.

“Cyberbullying is as awful as it is because it is not like what Mary Lou and Claudia did,” Ms. Lavielle said. “Someone online can make up a name, and you have no idea who they are. They are emboldened to be nastier because they are not talking to your face. You don’t know who’s saying it, who they are saying it to. It’s a horrible feeling to read what people really think of me. I wonder where they got the ideas? I wonder who they are? I wonder who they are writing to?”

Ms. Lavielle reassured campers that due to Public Act 11-232, an act signed into law by Gov. Dannel Malloy in 2011 that strengthened anti-bullying laws, instances of bullying would be recognized and dealt with in their schools provided students brought it to the attention of school staff.

“You can talk about (bullying) anonymously,” Ms. Lavielle said. “There’s no punishment for telling. You will be listened to and acknowledged. The best thing you can do is spread the word and help each other.”

Ms. Boucher also hit on the fact that much of what is posted online can stay there a very long time.

“A lot of bullying occurs on the (school) bus or in the hallways. You don’t have to be short or fat or old to be picked on. You can get picked on for being very smart. We all did silly, stupid things when we were young. When you’re going for a teaching job, [something you posted online years ago] can be a problem. If you wouldn’t want it said about you, don’t say it about someone else. People’s lives have been put at risk. People have died [after being bullied online].”

Additionally, counselors in training Alex Hollander, Michael Jennings, Jessie Bartels, Cynthia Marroquin and Kyle Wilson put on a series of skits that portrayed cyberbullying on various social media outlets and ways to spot and combat it.

After the speakers, the guest legislative figures, camp staff, and campers were all encouraged to sign a pledge to “take a stand against cyberbullying,” promising to not only be kind and mindful in their online interactions, but to also inform their peers of the dangers of cyberbullying, and to help others who are bullied online.