Emerging from the Sites of Cyberbullying

By: Allaire Taiber

Hunkered in a bathroom stall, tears began to spill from my eyes as the words from my laptop screen seeped into my conscience. My hands trembled, scrolling and searching for the cause. My body numbed. The words I read creating heart-wrenching wounds that continued to cut deeper and deeper. The “biggest bitch in school,” one tweet said. “F–k Allie Taiber,” said another.

I was feeling alone and bewildered. Why was this happening?

Meanwhile on the other side of the screen, friends new and old, strangers and heedless onlookers composed, favorited and retweeted tweets and messages all in efforts to tear me down. “The snitch,” they accused. The one who “ruined everything.”

Completely taken aback by everyone’s actions not only on social media, but through the gossip and absurd remarks throughout the school, I sat there alone in the stall not knowing how to react, what to do or where to go. As I sank deep into my mind where nothing was OK, I asked myself, “Why me?” For the first couple hours not a single individual stood up to what was happening online. Where were my so-called friends? Where had the good in humanity disappeared to? With no voice, I feared what was to come as the targeted harassment and threats progressed by my fellow classmates.

Every year, Cedar Falls High School’s homecoming tradition of Jell-O wrestling delivers emotional, physical and mental damage that most of us students, some parents and community members are completely oblivious to. Prior to last Wednesday’s affairs, I had no real problem with the tradition. “Simple homecoming fun” was all, and if you didn’t support it, then you didn’t go.

Little did I know there were so many strings attached. The violent and sexist nature of this event is mirrored in the way I was treated last week. The idea of Jell-O wrestling is to watch as women are literally thrown around in a pool of Jell-O for others’ enjoyment as they try to strip one another’s shirt off. The repercussions of our school handing out 20 percent punishments and suspensions for the athletes who chose to attend and got caught left people infuriated and pointing fingers. Without any accountability or ownership of their own behavior, the trend began; the search for who’s to “blame.” And this time, for reasons I am unaware of, the scapegoat was me.

This dysfunctional behavior has become all too common in our generation. It would be easy for me to just tell the story, dwell on the negativity of the situation and search for self pity. But I see this as an opportunity to bring awareness, to step up and to be the voice for many who feel they don’t have voices in efforts to open all of our eyes to the bigger issue.

Cyberbullying is the action of harming, targeting, embarrassing or harassing via technology networks in a repeated and deliberate manner. According to U.S. legal definitions, “Cyber-bullying could be limited to posting rumors or gossips about a person in the Internet, bringing about hatred in other’s minds; or it may go to the extent of personally identifying victims and publishing materials severely defaming and humiliating them.”

This is exactly what I experienced. Peers who I thought were my friends and people I had never even met all chose to partake in an act of false accusation. My situation is just one standing example of what often goes unsaid all around the world. Unfortunately, not all individuals who are on the receiving end of this kind of abuse make it through alive. We’re all well aware of the sweeping statistics of suicide among teens who are bullied online. The power to stop that starts with us.

Over 80 percent of teens use cell phones regularly, making it the most common and accessible medium for cyber bullying. Seventy percent of students report witnessing bullying online, yet 90 percent of them ignore it.  Due to the the fear of retaliation, students feel unable to take action.

Social media creates an affirmation loop where cruel, shaming, mean and destructive messages take on a life of their own. Students need to be trained to recognize this as a real form of violence. A screen provides an easy curtain for the bullies to hide behind and say things they wouldn’t dare to say in person. After attempting to contact several individuals who partook in last Wednesday’s events for an interview, they’ve stayed silent, unable to take ownership of their actions. Our generation has been consumed by social media and all the negativity that ties into it. It’s time to step out from behind the screens in order to make a change.

When given the opportunity, kids will do anything in their power to receive as many “favorites” or “retweets” as possible on a piece of information (true or false), no matter the repercussions. We enjoy the idea of having a “picture perfect” school with “picture perfect” students. In general, we all want to be good, but when it comes down to it, most of us will do whatever necessary to be accepted or looked at as “cool” by the common crowd. As I witnessed several members of leadership groups also participating in the bullying, it caused me to question their true intentions. Don’t get me wrong; there are plenty of positive CFHS voices within the countless leadership groups, but why be a member of a group that stands for leadership yet chose to stay silent in a situation like we had last week?

It’s time to take action; this behavior needs to stop. Principal Jason Wedgbury notices this. “We need to continue to cast a wider net and engage more people in these conversations. It is also evident that there is some disconnect between what a group stands for and how they actually respond when confronted with a difficult situation. We had far too many individuals join in or sit passive during the negative encounters.

“As a high school, we are preparing our students to act independently as this is the last structured environment many of our students will have before they enter the next stage of their lives beyond high school. We must continue to educate our students on the impact of their actions, how negativity can grow out of control, how our digital footprint becomes permanent and how being an upstander can save lives and a lot of unnecessary pain,” Wedgbury said.

I completely agree. The collective voices of individuals who clearly see the wrong need to be heard. We need to increase awareness as to what the power of words can do to others because no human being deserves to be treated so poorly.

Wedgbury and some of the administrative staff  do not perceive bullying to be a pervasive CFHS problem, but it is apparent. “With a foundation this size, anywhere you go bullying would be an issue. It’s occurring too much in our society, especially through social media and hiding behind a screen. It is obvious from the events during homecoming that bullying is something that continues to require our focus. We had many people jump to conclusions, which were completely inaccurate, and join the momentum of the negative movement. This was a sad day in our school as many hurtful and mean-spirited things were shared that should not be a part of our culture,” Wedgbury said.

I believe any type or amount of bullying is a problem despite the size of the community; if bullying occurs, there’s a problem. Addressing the problem is the first step, and luckily Wedgbury has, but it’s difficult to reach common ground between students and staff.

When he often turned the question I intended for him onto me, asking what I expect of the movement, I found it difficult to answer too. A lot of the time those who bully don’t even realize it in the first place, which is half the problem. Students need to be educated on the effects of their actions and how they can adequately stand up to and for others.

Senior Isaac Turner-Hall, one of the few who was able to own up to his bullying actions, recognizes his mistakes. “I was really upset when I heard people were getting in trouble with their sports. I didn’t want that to be me,” Turner-Hall said. The consequences of what might happen to an onlooker unfortunately outweighed what was happening to others in the process. As soon as a tweet had been sent out, everything and everyone instantly blew up.

“Once I realized it wasn’t you [who snitched], I felt awful. I think the whole school could agree. I felt like a bully. I was the bully, and it’s just not worth it; this is what people take their lives over,” Turner-Hall said. But actions will speak louder then the words and apologies. The inexcusable and destructive actions of these bullies have made the world in which we live a battle for kids everywhere. I’ve made it my goal to show those kids that’s not how things are supposed to be, and they won’t be.

Cedar Falls High School has been given an opportunity to change the way social media is portrayed, but the question still stands whether or not a change will occur. Turner Hall realizes this and has pledged to take action, “I always used to pride myself in being the nice guy. I guess when you’re actually put in the situation, everyone just wants to fit in. This taught me a lot, to think before you type and to be nice. Not just online but everywhere,” Turner-Hall said.

As I flashback to last Wednesday, the hopeless pain is no longer there. Instead, I am overwhelmed by a feeling of inspiration to use my experience to let victims of bullying know it does get better and to show those who participate in bullying that it’s time to stop. The power to rise above is found within us. Step up, speak out and put a stop to it — because you are worth it. Everyone is worth it. No one has the right to say otherwise.

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