By Tim Willert Published: October 7, 2013
Allison Timberlake had no clue that her then 11-year-old daughter was the subject of a Facebook page dedicated to trashing her reputation. A fellow parent broke the news to the Edmond mother of three, whose middle child did not have a cellphone or access to social media on her home computer. Bryan and Allison Timberlake, the parents of a girl who was bullied via social media, Thursday, October 3, 2013. Photo by David McDaniel, The Oklahoman
“She said not only does the page exist but your child was added as a member,” Timberlake recalled Wednesday. “My daughter, of course, was devastated.” Last month, a video of five girls dancing suggestively at a slumber party made the rounds at Quail Creek Elementary School in Oklahoma City. “Two of the girls in the video came to me the following morning and were upset because some of the kids were making fun of them because of the way they were dancing in the video,” said Heather Clark, a school counselor. Though not as common as face-to-face bullying, the practice of using a smartphone or computer to harass, threaten or embarrass another student — often anonymously — is on the upswing across the state and has local school officials considering social media policies to curtail the behavior.
“Cyberbullying is everywhere,” said Melissa White, executive director of counseling for the state Education Department. “Obviously there is a whole lot more technology today. Ten years ago you didn’t have Facebook and most kids didn’t have cellphones by the third grade.”
Next-generation applications such as Instagram, Ask.fm, Snapchat and Kik Messenger that let users text, video chat, shop and share their pictures and video are attracting kids and teens in droves.
“We don’t have firm data on whether cyberbullying is on the rise, but our principals say that the use of social media is often a factor in the bullying incidents that do get reported and investigated,” said Susan Parks-Schlepp, a spokeswoman for Edmond Public Schools. One of those principals, Cimarron Middle School’s Cordell Ehrich, helps teach students about appropriate online behavior. He also educates parents about the dangers associated with social media.
“What I’m seeing is a lot more kids using devices,” Ehrich said. “A lot more students are engaged in social media. Our goal is to create responsible digital citizens.” Posting something explicit online, he said, is akin to having a tattoo on your face that never completely goes away, even if removed.
Tracking a child’s behavior is difficult, if not impossible, for parents often unaware of their child’s online relationships, Ehrich said. “A lot of my parents are just figuring out Facebook,” he said. “By the time that happens the kids have moved on to something else because it’s not cool.”
School districts in Oklahoma City, Edmond and Moore have bullying policies and prevention programs in place, including those to educate students and parents on the pitfalls of the Internet. Students also are prohibited from using cellphones while on campus during school hours. The Oklahoma City and Edmond school districts have systems to report bullying and other safety issues; callers can remain anonymous. Moore Public Schools is planning a similar phone line to report offensive or threatening behavior, said Brad Fernberg, the district’s assistant superintendent of secondary education.
“We definitely have issues with Facebook, Instagram and texting,” said Fernberg, whose district investigated 425 bullying reports in the 2011-12 and 2012-13 school years. Westmoore High School Principal Mark Hunt said he’s seeing more and more cyberbullying, particularly among his younger students. Most of the behavior, he added, takes place outside of school but affects a student’s ability to focus in the classroom. “It is taking a whole lot of time away from what we’re supposed to be about, which is teaching and learning,” he said.
Hunt has disciplined students for texting and tweeting disparaging remarks about other students and posting threatening statements on Facebook. In one case, a Westmoore student was suspended for posting “absolutely false” information online about a fellow student or students that Hunt said “was very disruptive and created a lot of anxiety for people.” “It’s just one of the worst things that can happen in a young person’s life,” he said of bullying.
Since the start of the 2012-13 school year Oklahoma City Public Schools has received nine reports of cyberbullying through the district’s Safe School hotline, compared to 98 reports of traditional bullying since Aug. 5. “I’m sure that it exists,” said Tracy Alvarez, who oversees the district hotline. “But (students and parents) are not reporting it. They may think if it’s initiated off campus than there’s no relevance to the school.”
Alvarez said the majority of bullying reports in the school district turn out to be nothing more than normal conflict between children. For an act to be considered bullying it must happen more than once and the perpetrator must have something to gain and show an imbalance of power.
The affects of bullying are profound and can last a lifetime. White said depression and anxiety are common among victims, with some turning to drugs and alcohol or self-harm. Others, she said, consider suicide as an option.
Allison Timberlake said her daughter is older and wiser now that she has access to social media, and was there to support her best friend when she was bullied last year. “People are a little more brazen when they don’t have to do this face-to-face,” Timberlake said. “Everything that seems to be coming out of their mouths seems to be heightened because they’re not having a face-to-face conversation.”