The Kids Aren't Alright: We Must Create Online Safe Spaces to Combat Cyber Bullying

by Veronica Agard

Middle school is a pretty rough time for most of us. We’re just beginning to experience puberty—the hormones, our menstrual cycles, and maybe our first real crush. To add to that pressure, if you were in middle school within the past ten years or so, a good chunk of the highs and lows of your middle school experience likely played out on social media. But what happens when you are bullied or targeted and there’s no way to track down who’s behind it?

It was the 2004-2005 academic year in Upstate New York. I was relatively new to the scene, as my middle school was a point of convergence before entering high school, and most of my friends from elementary school had left for school districts with better reputations. Puberty came early for me at the end of fourth grade, and three grades later I was still dealing with major self-esteem issues.

In spite of these self-doubts, I still got to know my classmates and made friends, some of whom I am fortunate to still be close with. Maybe it was because I was too eager, maybe I was trying too hard, or maybe it was because I was one of the few Black students in the honors courses at a predominately Black school—whatever the reason, I rubbed some folks the wrong way.

One day, while deciding whom to add to my MySpace Top 8, it was brought to my attention that someone had made a profile that appeared to be talking badly about me. The page, using one of my AOL Instant Messenger handles at the time, featured images of black and white animals with captions saying things like, “I think I’m hot shit” and other hurtful statements.

Anyone else who has grown up being referred to as an “Oreo” or told that they “talk white” will understand my concern at the time. My friends and I contacted the page to get more answers and were told that someone I considered to be a friend did it. At 14 years old with a still developing ego, I sought solace in someone whom I had feelings for. He said he knew who did it, but wouldn’t tell me. Now as an adult, I realize that alone should have been my clue to move on, as anyone who genuinely cared about me would have never played mind games like that.

Ten years later, the feelings of manipulation and shaming remain. In my case, the page in question still exists, even though my friends and I attempted to appeal to creator to delete the page. , itself never deleted it or the user. Social media platforms for the most part come and go, but the issue of cyber bullying has remained prevalent. what more can be done to prevent such attacks? Yes, we can try to limit when and how teens use the Internet, but have companies done all that they can to monitor acts of cyber bullying?

Even when using screenshots as proof and gathering other evidence, folks are hard-pressed to believe you, so how can we support those who have been the victim of an online attack? Where does one draw the line between “kids being kids” and the very real crime of harassment that we know can cause youth to take their own lives?

According to a 2012 study, 42% of teens with “tech access reported being cyber bullied over the past year.” The debate over whether or not the responsibility falls on the abuser or the social media platforms themselves doesn’t seem like it will end soon.

If it was not for that moment so many years ago, I know that I would not have the same sense of self, nor feel as if I had any agency while participating in safe spaces. Quite frankly, I probably would not have felt so impassioned to build a sense of community at college.

During my time at The City College of New York, I found community in the classroom. Through investigating the writings and teachings of Audre Lorde and Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw, I was able to develop an understanding of what my Black womanhood was. Most importantly, I discovered what I would and would not stand for, including any kind of bullying or shaming in cyber space. Through this (ongoing) process of self care and personal development, sister friends and I created a campus organization dedicated to facilitating spaces of healing, political education, and transformation. If I didn’t get the chance to dig deep into racial theory among my peers who had gone through similar experiences, I don’t think that I would have found the drive to help others who are going through traumatic experiences. So in some way, I will be forever grateful to those who chose to make that page, as I do not know who I would be had I not had that experience.

However, this doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t prevent cyber bullying. Some progress can be seen in the self-directed facilitation and creation of online communities that serve as safe spaces. Past and current difficulties can be shared among those whom you trust and can learn from. With so many communities and organizations dedicated to Black women’s experiences—like Black Women’s Blueprint, Black Girls Rock, and For Harriet—who have thriving social media platforms, how else can we ensure more (self) protection? How can we continue our healing processes?

What have you done to help create safe communities in cyberspace and in real life? Share your thoughts with me on Twitter at @veraicon_.

Photo: Shutterstock

Veronica Agard is a regular contributor to For Harriet.

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