Health Team

A new anti-cyberbullying campaign sends participants messages inspired by ones sent to real victims

A new anti-bullying PSA video produced by Monica Lewinsky allows watchers to briefly experience cyberbullying firsthand.

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Elizabeth Wolfe
Saeed Ahmed, CNN
CNN — A new anti-bullying PSA video produced by Monica Lewinsky allows watchers to briefly experience cyberbullying firsthand.

"The Epidemic" begins with a short video that shows Hailey, an American teenager, suffering from an unknown virus.

She's a regular teenager -- attending class, watching TV, always checking her phone. Except unlike many of her peers, Hailey leaves class to throw up, doesn't talk to people at school, and barely looks anyone in the eye.

After watching the video, viewers are invited to enter their phone number and watch the video again.

The second time, viewers receive the same text messages on their phone that Hailey is receiving in real time. This way, participants can see the relentless, disturbing messages that victims of cyberbullying get.

"Bullying is a global epidemic and the signs can often be hard to see since so much of it takes place online," Lewinsky said in a statement. "But make no mistake; there are real, offline consequences that range from bad to grave. With 'The Epidemic' we're working to build vital awareness, help people learn empathy through experience and remind anyone who is being bullied: please don't suffer in silence."

The texts are inspired by actual messages that real-life victims of cyberbullying have received.

While the project only collects phone numbers for the purpose of sending text messages to the viewer, people who are wary of giving out their number can watch a demo video of what the text messages would look like.

The imagery and messages in "The Epidemic" may be disturbing to viewers. They are intended to show how upsetting the experience of being cyberbullied can be.

The effectiveness of the PSA

Bullying has become a common occurrence in young people's lives.

One in five students reported being bullied at school in the last year, the US Centers for Disease Control says.

Lewinsky may have gone a bit too far by calling cyberbullying an epidemic, though, said Dorothy Espelage, a professor at the University of Florida who specializes in bullying and harassment research.

Instead, she told CNN, it should be referred to as a "public health crisis."

Espelage has a lot of respect for Lewinsky's anti-bullying efforts. She said that Lewinsky has not jumped into this work lightly.

"What people don't know about Monica," she said, "is Monica showed up at all of the scientific conferences to learn about the evidence, to learn from all of us. Monica sat in the front row of our conferences for years listening, trying to understand."

Lewinsky was launched into the public eye during the President Bill Clinton impeachment scandal of 1998. As a result of her relationship with Clinton, she received a barrage of online harassment and has used that experience to inform her activism.

She shared her own experience with cyberbullying in a 2015 TEDTalk.

"Overnight, I went from being a completely private figure to a publicly humiliated one, worldwide," she said. "I was patient zero of losing a personal reputation on a global scale almost instantaneously."

An important step

Espelage says the PSA will not directly reduce bullying, but believes it may be an important step in inspiring advances in violence intervention. Currently, she says, the United States lacks effective cyberbullying reduction programs.

"The ones that are out there have modest reduction in cyberbullying, and in the States we have fewer programs than (countries) outside of North America," she says.

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