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Go Ask Mom

Do your kids have their friends' backs on social media? 13 ways to #cyberback, lessons from '13 Reasons Why'

Posted September 4

Following the premiere of "13 Reasons Why" in March 2017, online searches for terms related to suicide awareness and prevention increased, but so did search terms associated with ideation, according to a paper published the journal JAMA Internal Medicine on Monday, July 31, 2017.

Editor's note: Laura Tierney, founder of The Social Institute, shares practical steps for kids and families, who are trying to combat cyberbullying.

This summer, “13 Reasons Why” became Netflix's most talked-about show on social media. Students conversed and debated on social media. Parents conversed and debated with each other in person, wondering how to even begin to talk to their daughters and sons about the main focus of the movie: Cyberbullying and suicide.

I was glued to my screen for several nights in June binge-watching the series. As a teen who grew up with my own cell phone, I could relate to this world that Hannah and her peers navigate every, single, day. While bullying has always existed, it's 2017, and cyberbullying takes drama to entirely new heights. Texts are permanent. Self-esteem gets slashed publicly. And to teens, the-world-is-ending drama can feel relentless.

But the answer is not for parents to ban social media or take away our children’s phones. When kids turn 16 and want to drive, we don’t throw the keys away and hide the car because they may get into an accident. We get in the passenger seat, buckle up, and teach them how to drive. Being social in today's world — which includes posting, texting, gaming and tweeting — is no different. Parents should be locking arms with their children to help them learn how to use it.

With school back in session and with Series 2 on the way, let’s teach teens to navigate social media positively. One of the many social media standards we believe in at The Social Institute is cyberbacking. It's about having someone's back if you see them being cyberbullied — whether they're a close friend or not. Witnesses to bullying have the most powerful voices in the room. It's our job to have people’s backs and to lift them up when they’re cyberbullied. Period. Now more than ever, we need more cyberbackers to combat bullying.

Time to strengthen our cyberbacking skills. If your family or school discusses the series, here are thought-starters and resources below to help guide your conversations.

Social scenario for students to navigate

You're a sophomore student, like Hannah. You witness one of Hannah's numerous bullying incidents happen when:

  • You are texted an inappropriate photo of her on the park slide
  • You see her in-person navigating an inappropriate situation, like the one with Marcus in the booth, or
  • You’re on a group text and see mean things about her being said.

What do you do? How do you have her back, the same way you'd want someone to have yours?

13 savvy moves to cyberback

If you see someone being bullied, cyberback them with these smart moves. Ready? Go.

1. "Wanna FaceTime?" FaceTime is a perfect way to have a friend's back and talk to them about more personal issues (compared to text when you don't see as many social cues). Remember Hannah's best friend Kat from the very first episode? Although she moved away, she can still use HouseParty or FaceTime or Skype to stay in touch with Hannah.

2. "Cmon, that's not cool." When you receive a text that mistreats others, you have the chance to reply and show your strength of character. Stand up for your core values and what you know is right. We love these four words, and we know Olympic athletes who've used them when the going gets tough on texts. Adopt them or find your own phrase.

3. "Hey Mom/Dad, I need to talk with you. Before you say anything or react, can you just listen?" A recent Penn State University study showed that most teens don't talk about online issues with their parents because they fear parents will freak out. But our solution isn't to stay quiet. Our solution is to ask parents to listen first and then help you brainstorm ways to best address the problem. Parents can be teammates in resolving the issue. One team. One dream.

4. "Let's talk to the school counselor. Together." Jay Asher, the best-selling author behind “13 Reasons Why,” was a peer helper at his high school — kind of like a student counselor. Students could go to him if they didn't feel comfortable going to an adult. When a student’s problems were beyond Jay’s capacity as a peer helper, he set up an appointment with the school counselor and went along. “I’m going to go with you, but I’m only there as support,” he’d say. Help your friend approach a trusted adult. You'll be thankful you did, and so will they.

5. Report and block. Report cyberbullying to the social media platform so they can look into the abuse. Remember, any company (like Instagram or Twitter) may take several days to respond, so this move should be matched with No. 6.

6. Screenshot and talk. Keep evidence of cyberbullying by screenshotting the post, before anyone deletes it and/or pretends like it never happened. Then take the evidence to an adult with Move No. 3.

7. Encourage bullies to delete risqué photos by using empathy. Here’s an IRL script: "Risqué photos shouldn't be on anyone's phone. Do you know what could happen to you, legally? Plus, you wouldn't want someone else to have photos of you like this. Delete them." As Selena Gomez, executive producer of “13 Reasons Why,” would say: "Kill them with kindness." And empathy.

8. Approach the bully as a larger team. Bullies feel small quickly when they realize a larger group is behind a different belief. Something like, "We all think what you're doing to Hannah isn't cool. It needs to stop or else WE are speaking up and telling an adult." Could do the trick.

9. Avoid saving or forwarding photos. If you ever receive an inappropriate photo, like the one of Hannah that popped up on Clay's phone, delete it. Right away. Before you even think of showing it to someone else or, worse, forwarding it. You could land yourself in huge legal trouble by even having the photo on your phone.

10. Reach out and offer help: the new friend request. "I saw what happened tonight, and I want to make sure you're OK. I'm here for you. Want to talk?" End with a question. The ball is in their court, so prepare for a phone call or more texting if they take you up on the offer.

11. Plan ahead with a positive. Sometimes, cyberbacking means having someone’s back via text, then giving the person something to look forward to in person. Here’s an example: "Hey, tough day today. Let's sit at lunch together tomorrow. Cool?"

12. 741-741 In 13 Reasons Why, Hannah does have the courage to approach her school counselor. But he offers zero guidance and support, leaving Hannah feel hopeless. If you ever need to talk to someone else, beyond your parent or counselor, text this number to contact the National Crisis Text Line. You’ll be able to text back-and-forth with a crisis counselor who can share helpful advice. It's a powerful, anonymous resource that's one simple text away.

13. Remind the person being bullied that their resilience will only strengthen. Let's face it: Cyberbullying sucks. And, yet, it's so common that students often consider it normal or a right-of-passage. Resilience cannot be downloaded or taught through YouTube. The greatest leaders and trailblazers became fearless, strong bad asses by facing tough situations head on. So, if you see someone feeling helpless about a seemingly never-ending bullying situation, assure them that it will indeed end. And in the meantime, help them by using the 12 positive moves above.

Like Hannah says halfway through the Netflix blockbuster, “Friends are supposed to have each other’s backs.” If you ever see the going get tough on Snapchat, Tumblr, a group text, or in the school hallway, do the right thing. And know that there are many other #cyberbackers out here that support you.

Laura Tierney is founder and president of The Social Institute, which teaches students positive ways to handle one of the biggest drivers of their social development: social media. She has has spent her career developing social media strategies for major brands, including Nike and Disney. Now, she helps teens and their role models (from parents to U.S. Olympians) use the power of social for good.

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