"'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:
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.