Lately it seems that the rate at which technology advances is surpassing the rate at which children grow up, often leaving an impressionable audience caught in a confusing web of online relationships that don’t always follow the same social norms as “real life.”
Anonymity can lead to free reign and in turn produce hostile behavior that can have devastating effects as seen in the spike of suicide amongst teens and pre-teens. The issue of cyber bullying has been a topic of discussion ever since Facebook made social media a common practice late in the last decade. But the slew of other platforms including Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat have only intensified the problem since then, leaving many parents and school officials scrambling with how to prevent the issue without infringing on First Amendment rights.
In 2012, former Governor Quinn signed into law a prevention policy that expanded the definition of bullying to include e-mail, text messages and social media sites and allowed school administrators to suspend or expel a student who threatened a peer over the Internet on school grounds or with school devices. Last year, Quinn took it a step further expanding the law to include actions away from school property and also requiring school administrators to actively investigate these acts. It went into effect January 1, 2015—and though there was early confusion about whether or not officials could require student log in information, that has since been refuted.
“We are aware of this law however we have not had to utilize it to combat any issues,” said a representative with the Glenbrook 225 district when asked how it fit into school policy.
Glenbrook South, in fact, has found other creative ways to target the issue with its student population, including a popular video made last spring by a group of graduating seniors. It was a project of the school’s Media Collage class, an elective run by English teacher Scott Glass.
“At its most basic, it asks kids to think about the devices and Internet they use every day and consider how to use them in more thoughtful, mindful, creative ways,” he said of the multi-media curriculum. “We experiment and talk about ideas and issues that arise with the growth in technology we’ve seen.” While GBS students are often encouraged to use smart devices as learning tools, there’s “always this dividing line of what is appropriate that makes it sometimes confusing,” admitted Glass.
One of the topics in the class last spring revolved around a new social media app called Yik Yak that was gaining steam. It allows users to “share your thoughts and keep your privacy,” according to a brand statement, providing just the right conditions to produce cyber bullying attacks. Schools were alarmed by the ramifications of the app—CPS even met with the creators to get it banned. In Glass’ class, students wanted to make an even bolder statement themselves.
They came up with the idea to film a video of three classmates standing in heavily trafficked staircases and wearing signs printed with some of the volatile words they had seen posted on Yik Yak. The project had approvals from the Deans and Glass, though he admitted, “I was nervous about how it would turn out.” None of the student body had any idea about the project so the reactions in the video—from hugs to conversations to one who broke down crying—were all completely organic.
“By and large the responses were empathetic,” noted Glass, “but some people walking by did say nasty things under their breath and the students did recognize some of the kids walking by who they knew were perpetrators of the online bullying, which led to definite tension.”
Though the video was originally intended for fellow classmates, it has reached a wider audience with 10,000-plus views on YouTube. In fact, Glass often receives feedback from strangers about how powerful it is.
Though the havoc Yik Yak created has since died down, as the video points out, “tomorrow it will be something else”—and much like the new laws Glass and his students are not letting the topic die down.
“It really requires vigilance,” he said. “From my point of view as a teacher and parent I see my role not only in talking about cyber bullying but also widening the conversation to be about acting online just like they’d do in real life. This is the world we have to prepare them for.”