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Combating Cruelty with Kindness

Justin is co-director of the Cyberbullying Research Center.

There’s no shortage of daily headlines that point to the conclusion that many teens are using technology carelessly and maliciously. Cyberbullying, especially, has been thrust to the forefront of parental concern, often being characterized as occurring at “epidemic” levels. But the reality is that those stories represent only a small part of what most teens are doing in cyberspace.

The truth is that most teens do not mistreat others online. We’ve surveyed nearly 15,000 middle and high school students from throughout the United States over the last decade and, on average, about 13% of those told us that they had cyberbullied others at some point in their lifetime. Our results mirror the consensus of other research as well. We recently reviewed forty-two academic articles that were published in peer-reviewed journals and on average about 15% of teens had cyberbullied others. Taken together, that means that 85% have not! This is good news!

That said, it is true that too many teens experience cyberbullying on a regular basis. Our research also shows that about 25% of teens have been the target of cyberbullying at some point in their lifetime and about 8% have had it happen to them within the previous month. According to the School Crime Supplement of the National Crime Victimization Survey, approximately 2.2 million teens were the target of cyberbullying in 2011 (their latest data).

Nice it Forward

Many teens are now taking measures to counteract all of that cruelty by harnessing the power of technology to do good.  Specifically, a number of teens have set up social media accounts, mostly on Twitter and Facebook, for the primary purpose of saying nice things about others at their schools.

For example, the “Nice it Forward” movement was started last year by Kevin Curwick, a (then) high school senior from Osseo, MN (a suburb of Minneapolis). Using his Twitter handle “@OsseoNiceThings,” He simply tweeted nice things to his followers about his school and classmate. Now a college freshmen, Kevin still regularly sends shout outs of support, such as:

“Fun, friendly, and makes the best pizzas. Ryan B. If you don't know him, that is sad for you.”

“If you need proof that hard work pays off, look no further than junior Alex P.”

“Dedicated to making other people's lives better, through friendship, or service, or school spirit. Mimi L.”

Jeremiah Anthony also understands the power of kindness.  Along with some friends from West High in Iowa City, he has been posting compliments (or “comps”) for over two years on @westhighbros. The idea is to recognize their classmates for great accomplishments and provide encouragement for the future (e.g., “Your charisma and energy are unmatched. A speaker and debater of the likes of you belongs talking in front of whole world!”). 

It’s Cool to Care

Adults have been struggling to get a handle on the bullying problem for generations with modest improvements only just appearing to emerge. Now teens from around the United States are actively stepping up, even without the prodding of adults, to show their classmates that bullying is not cool. Showing compassion in a public forum sends a message to those who are being targeted that they are not alone and that at least some students at the school are on their side and appreciate who they are and what they do.  Kevin Curwick has seen firsthand the ability of kindness to quash cruelty: “Within a week of the creation of @OsseoNiceThings, bullying accounts [targeting students at Osseo] were either deleted or shut down.” Jeremiah Anthony also recognizes the power that teens can have on social media: “Our account proves that people my age really do great things with technology.” Students are leading the way in showing their peers that kindness is cool, which is very cool indeed.

Cover image courtesy of Flickr.

Justin Patchin is a professor of criminal justice at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire and co-director of the Cyberbullying Research Center. He is also the co-author (with Sameer Hinduja of Florida Atlantic University) of 4 books on the topic of cyberbullying, including the forthcoming “Words Wound: Delete Cyberbullying and Make Kindness Go Viral,” which will be in print this December.


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