Program pushes to stop cyberbullying before it starts

USA TODAY columnist Steven Petrow offers advice about living in the Digital Age.

Recently, I had lunch with a friend whose daughter is just starting ninth grade. We talked a lot about the “mean girls” who had taunted and bullied “Samantha” — both online and offline — last year and how my friend was trying to help her going into the new school year.

While I’ve long been aware of bullying as an insidious problem, Samantha’s situation brought it home for me.  I also came across some new statistics: More than 3.2 million students identify as victims of bullying each year, and bullying is linked to truancy, anxiety, substance abuse and suicide, reports the Tyler Clementi Foundation, founded in the memory of the Rutgers student who took his own life after a cyber-bullying episode.

Some other statistics also made me sit up straighter in my chair:

— 64% of American adults believe bullying to be more prevalent among young people today than it was during their own childhood.

— 20% of students in grades 9-12 reported being bullied in 2013.

It may well be that bullying is — or seems — more prevalent today because it’s harder to escape. It’s one thing to suffer indignities in the playground, but quite another to have the persecution follow you home on social media, where you can be taunted 24/7.

Tyler Clementi’s mom, Jane, reports that  “research shows cyberbullying is far more tied to suicidal thoughts [than offline bullying is]. Tyler faced incredible isolation and despair, probably because of the far-reaching and permanent nature of humiliation online.”

The Foundation is not only highlighting the prevalence of bullying, it has launched an innovative program, called #Day1, that is based on prevention and action. It relies heavily on enlisting other kids to intervene in, or at least report, episodes of bullying. The program enccourages kids who would otherwise be bystanders to bullying to become “upstanders” instead of bystanders.

The Foundation is asking students, teachers, coaches, sorority and fraternity members, guidance counselors and other groups “to prevent bullying, harassment and humiliation” by completing the Upstander Pledge, which is a commitment to taking a personal stand to intervene or report cruelty whenever and wherever it is witnessed.

Unlike other anti-bullying efforts, the secret sauce to the #Day1 campaign is getting people in authority to state from the outset (i.e., on day one of a new school year or camp session) that bullying is not allowed. Much of that effort starts online.

— To get involved, download the #Day 1 information handout by clicking here.

— Read it. Take the pledge. Share it with others.

— Once students (or anyone else for that matter) have been informed, ask them to confirm that they’ve understood and will sign up to be an “Upstander.”

— Those participating are asked to share their experiences by Twitter (@TylerClementi) or Facebook (TheTylerClementiFoundation)

Among organizations supporting  #Day1 are Columbia and Rutgers, the American Federation of Teachers, the National Education Association, and Rock the Vote. Celebrities like Sarah Jessica Parker and Matthew Broderick, Megan Mullally, Susan Sarandon, and Caitlyn Jenner have also backed the campaign.

I also hope that the school administrators at Samantha’s school join in—from #Day1.

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