The Internet Is Forever

While perusing my local newspaper recently, I read that a group of concerned parents had raised funds for an in-school, anti-bullying program that had fallen victim to state budget cuts. "What a great story," I thought to myself, and the article would have probably slipped quietly into my brain's abyss were it not for this quote from a program supporter:

"'Sticks and stones may break your bones but words will never hurt you' is one of the greatest lies told to teenagers today."

Soaking each word in, I could feel my blood beginning to boil, and a flood of questions rushed to mind. A lie?!? Would generations of mothers lie to their children? Wasn't this kitchen table wisdom designed to teach our youths to develop a thick skin to survive life's later -- and far less predictable -- twists and turns? Was this program about anti-bullying or coddling?

Calming down, my parental instincts kicked in, and my thoughts wandered to the 18-year-old college freshman in Connecticut who recently discovered that she was the subject of a vicious, fake Facebook profile. After some amateur sleuthing, she discovered the profile was created by two former high school "friends" in an effort to humiliate her. Those classmates now find themselves facing criminal impersonation and harassment charges. The victim finds herself alienated from many former high school friends and left to wonder if the fake Facebook profile is really gone or just lying in wait for a prospective employer to find. As she states:

"It still could be out there somewhere because the Internet is forever."

To today's teens, the Internet is forever. They've never known a world that wasn't accessible 24/7. They are coming of age in an environment where adolescent missteps are streamed on YouTube for laughs, dissected on Facebook for fun, and archived on Google for time indeterminate. Some teens are "16 & Pregnant" for our entertainment. Others are publicly outed on the Internet in such callous ways that suicide seems like the only option.

The truth is that teens aren't dealing with mere "words" spoken to a few people within earshot. They're facing a fire hose of words, images, and videos broadcast instantaneously to entire peer groups via a single click. A thick skin provides only limited protection when the attack impairs your online and offline lives simultaneously.

Clearly, marketers didn't create this environment, but we certainly owe it to ourselves and teens to speak out against cyber-bullying with all the force that our brands and celebrity spokespeople can muster. Interestingly, it appears that only a couple of brands have stepped into the fray to combat cyber-bullying:

  • In 2008, Sony Creative Software, in collaboration with the Ad Council and National Crime Prevention Center, sponsored an anti-bullying PSA creation contest. The winners can be viewed here.
  • In late 2009, LG Mobile launched its ambitious "Give It a Ponder" campaign featuring James Lipton and a detachable beard that encouraged teens to think before texting, tweeting or updating in vindictive or inappropriate ways. While it seems to have gone silent now, @PonderBeard was a humorous effort to extend the campaign to Twitter.

Could a more unified front of brands and public figures help teens combat the rising tide of cyber-bullying? We'll never know unless some marketers step up to try -- and rest assured that organizations like Wired Kids (the folks behind www.stopcyberbullyingnow.org) and The Cyberbullying Research Center certainly would welcome the help. I dare say that an anti-cyber-bullying initiative would present an incredible opportunity for a brand to do something quite rare -- promote an initiative with broad support among teens and their parents.

Want to think even more optimistically? Imagine an online world where Facebook, Google, Twitter, Microsoft and Yahoo joined forces through a unified public service campaign to convey that cyber-bullying isn't tolerated within any of their communities, websites, games or applications. I can almost see the uniform policy now:

Sticks and stones may break your bones, but cyber-bullying will get you blocked.

Intriguing idea? Slippery slope? I welcome your comments.

Tags: internet, teens
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4 comments about "The Internet Is Forever ".
  1. Byron Wolt from Speak to Students , December 9, 2010 at 1:19 p.m.

    What an excellent and timely article!

    It is GREAT to see examples of major companies reaching and empowering youth to make a positive impact in their lives and communities.

    The "sticks and stones" myth is #2 on my list of facts that are fictions that parents and teachers need to stop passing on to our next generation. Students need to understand that it is not only what you say that can and will be used against you BUT what you don't say that can and will be used against you.

    I talk to high school students about the "sticks and stones" myth in the context of bullying and in communicating for success, but until reading your article, never really considered the implications of the internet.

    Thanks for your article!

  2. Jeffrey Rohrs from ExactTarget , December 9, 2010 at 1:29 p.m.

    Thanks Byron! Hopefully, some more companies--especially those who profit mightily from social technologies--will consider developing anti-cyberbullying initiatives.

    With regard to the "sticks & stones myth," how do you still convey to students that a thick skin is needed in life & that others aren't always responsible for your reactions?

    It seems like a very challenging tightrope to walk so that we're appropriately protective but not coddling in our educational efforts.

  3. Jacinta Alexander , December 10, 2010 at 8:43 p.m.

    Great article - this is becoming a huge issue for parents and schools.

    I just finished writing a blog about this subject - http://8snaps.blogspot.com/2010/12/dont-forget-that-mom-sees-everything.html

    -- About 8snaps.com --
    Our mission is to provide children with a happier, safer childhood. We have created an online anti-cyberbullying service for parents and schools which makes it simple to monitor and detect children’s online activities. The service is available at http://www.8snaps.com and is currently free for home use.

  4. Brooks Gibbs , December 11, 2010 at 9:17 p.m.

    I agree. There is a delicate balance of reaching both victims of bullying and those who Bully. Sometimes they are the same person... sometimes they are separate people. The way I have been doing this is through my LOVE>HATE assembly programs and training events for students, teachers, and parents.

    I find that the "Golden Rule" reaches both. I teach students how important it is to treat everyone the way they want to be treated. I teach victims of bullying how to treat their enemies/bullies like friends. Treat them the way they would want to be treated.

    The golden rule is freaking brilliant when you dive deep into it's meaning. It has been the solution for dealing with mean people for thousands of years. Aristotle made a logical proof 2,400 years ago that if we all lived by the Golden rule, we wouldn't need government.

    The Golden rule can be taught in a cool respectable way that teen audiences resonate with. Treating others nicely takes advantage of the Law of Reciprocity and gets others (even enemies) to treat you nicely back.

    This works both in person and online. Teens can be taught the power of love. The bully type kids will be inspired by it. The victim kids will be empowered by it.

    I personally work with victims and teach them how to turn their bullies into buddies... all by the Golden Rule principle. www.BrooksGibbs.com