Editor's note: Our sister paper, the Palo Alto Weekly, published this story as part of a series on cyberbullying. The entire in-depth package has been posted here and will be published in the Express as a serial.
Diana was new to Palo Alto, entering middle school mid-year and nervous about the transition. Within a few months, she found good friends and began "going out" with a boy.
But things did not look up for long. Inexplicably, hurtful messages began flowing into Diana's Facebook "Honesty Box" (a now-defunct application for sending private, anonymous notes).
"I don't get why anyone would like you," "You're really ugly," "You have no personality," and "You're fat," they said. About 30 such messages arrived before Diana shut her Honesty Box down.
There was no way to tell how many people were sending the comments, or who they were.
It did not end there. Another Facebook feature, "Bathroom Wall," displayed anonymous public posts. Nasty messages appeared there next, for all of Diana's classmates to see.
"I would check Bathroom Wall so often," she said. She dreaded what she might find but felt compelled to know what was being said about her.
"It was a very, very, very down time for me," she said. "I had a lot of suicide thoughts. My self-esteem was ruined."
Diana (not her real name) ultimately recovered her confidence, but it took years. Even now, she has a strong sense of vulnerability to possible online attack and guards herself in social situations with school friends to minimize risk.
"I can't be myself," she said.
Diana graduated from Palo Alto High School in June. She told her story to the Weekly because she is concerned about bullying and other forms of mean behavior among teens, the worst of which often occur online. She thinks if youth and adults understood more about the problem and its impact, other kids might be spared what she went through.
The Weekly also interviewed about 50 other Palo Alto teens (high school and older) for this story, including roundtable discussions with the Palo Alto Youth Council and Teen Advisory Board, and numerous adults, including school officials, educators, parents, psychologists and other youth experts.
Social media is an integral and growing force in young lives, everyone agrees. Yet despite its great allure and benefits (including information, play, creative expression and connecting with people), social media also carries significant risks. Mean, defamatory, sexual or offensive comments and images, including cyberbullying of the type experienced by Diana, are part of the fabric of social media.
In cyberspace, it is easy for youth to blur and cross lines between private and public, playful banter and painful teasing, truth and lies, humor and hurt, respect and disrespect. The effects on teens are difficult to gauge. Even when people are hurt, the social norm is to act like there hasn't been an impact, except in egregious cases. Even the worst upsets tend to pass quickly from public consciousness as teens' attentions move to the next online post. If it didn't involve the student directly, or a friend, it's often just a tiny part of a vast, fast-moving, fluid world and not absorbed in any deeply conscious way, teens and educators say.
Teens operate in cyberspace by their own rules and customs in what some label the "wild, wild West," or liken to "Lord of the Flies." At times teens bemoan the negative aspects of social media, whether as targets or witnesses, but in general they accept its foibles with "This is the way it is," and "There's nothing to be done about it." Most of what they see they consider within the range of normal (even if it's mean towards someone) and not a big problem. At the same time, they seem quite aware that adults would feel differently.
"Most adults would be shocked at what they would see if they spent 24 hours on their kids' Facebook pages (including the private messages)," one recent Gunn High School grad told the Weekly.
The opportunities for unkind communication are increased online, and the effects amplified, most agree, due to the large audiences, easy dissemination, 24/7 availability, permanence of posts, anonymity, impersonal nature of technology and ability to instantly register opinions by pressing the "Like" button or displaying site-visit numbers.
Learning to navigate this frontier safely and responsibly is an unprecedented stretch for youth. Even as many teens venture into social media gladly, they do so without roadmap or guidance distilled from experiences of fully fledged adults who know what it was like to do this at their age. Teens are pioneers in this transformed world.
"Make no mistake. This is a huge change that's occurring at warp speed," nonprofit Common Sense Media founder and Stanford University lecturer James Steyer wrote in "Talking Back to Facebook: Raising Kids in the Digital Age."
Even 20-somethings shake their heads in surprise at social media habits they don't recognize in today's teens. Adults struggle to catch up and develop ways to guide youth in navigating this territory. Figuring out how to maximize social media's positives, minimize its risks, and harness it for good purpose is the greater task at hand, according to Steyer and other experts.
Hazards not limited to cyberbullying
What happened to Diana was cyberbullying, most adults and teens would agree -- repeated attacks on a single target by one or more aggressors, using the power of anonymity to deliver harsh blows. But online social hazards are not limited to the traditional notions of cyberbullying. Researchers have adopted other terms, like "social cruelty," "social combat" or "drama," to describe a broader range of mean-spirited behavior that adversely affects teens' sense of security, self-esteem and relationships.
What local youth describe is frequent exposure -- whether they directly engage in it or not -- to communication that by adult standards would be out of bounds. At times it is fueled by alcohol or drugs. Routine conflicts between friends can turn intensely and publicly hostile with social-media tools ready-made for escalation. Spreading hurtful gossip, including sexually explicit rumors, is commonplace online, teens say. Many details are too explicit or potentially identifying to be published in the Weekly.
Teens use a wide array of online methods to inflict hurt, ranging from creating blatantly bullying "I Hate" Facebook accounts to more subtle "subtweets" and other indirect ways of aiming negative messages at a specific, unnamed (but you know who you are) someone. Anonymous online forums like Tumblr, Formspring and Ask.fm can be particularly brutal, Diana and other teens said.
Local teens reported the following incidents of hurtful online material:
Gunn senior Chaewon Lee described how an embarrassing video of her, taken in middle school without permission, spread around Facebook. She asked the poster, a friend, to take it down but was refused. In a column in Gunn's student newspaper, The Oracle, Lee criticized students who "post embarrassing or harmful words online without really thinking." She described how "people caught up in anger against each other often have degrading verbal fights on Facebook that are completely open for outside parties to see. ... (By) the next day, everyone at school knows who dumped whom, who pranked whom, etc." Lee told the Weekly she has seen Facebook fights "tons of times."
A female Paly student discovered a Facebook comment by a male friend falsely claiming in crude terms that he had had sex with her. She felt betrayed as well as concerned about her reputation. She sent a Facebook message requesting the post be removed; to her relief, the poster complied. She still feels hurt by what he did.
A sports-team rivalry between Gunn and Paly resulted in a Facebook conflict involving "horrible, awful things on the wall" of a Paly student, according to students who saw the posts. Several teens indicated that this unusually upsetting case was reported to school officials; more typically these online battles go undetected by adults, and the posts eventually are deleted.
Multiple teens described common use of Facebook "statuses" or "subtweets" to target specific unnamed peers with indirect language that will not get them into trouble if discovered by adults but which have a mean or angry subtext the target will recognize. Examples given: "A true friend doesn't talk behind your back" or "Still remembering what happened today with that guy in Spanish" or "I don't think people realize what their words can do to people." The targets will feel the pinch but will be helpless to defend themselves as the message ripples out to "easily hundreds of people," some of whom press "Like," adding to the number "piling on." Others may criticize what has been posted to help shore up the target and/or escalate the drama.
A Paly student found negative comments about an unflattering photo of her, taken during class without her knowledge, on Facebook. Despite her hurt feelings and a school-rule violation, she never considered telling a school official. "It wouldn't do any good," she said. "Besides, I would be harassed for bringing it up." She was relieved, however, to see how quickly her classmates' focus on the photo faded.
A Gunn senior reported that a student "started bawling" in class because of being cyberbullied, stunning others present. The senior was reassured to see the distraught student getting caring help from the teacher and classmates, but the intensity of the upset remained a strong memory.
Numerous Paly students provided details to the Weekly about the January posting of an anonymous Tumblr blog called "PA Gossip Girl," which named individual students in connection with sexually explicit rumors, including rape. Several students were very hurt and many more angered. "It really upset our whole grade," one sophomore said. Others were entertained ("the highlight of my day" read one Twitter post). The blog and comments in response were circulated widely on Facebook and Twitter within an hour, according to an editorial in the Paly student magazine, Verde, that urged students to "build a community that stands against this kind of online shaming." (See sidebar: "Anatomy of a Palo Alto High School cyberbullying incident.")
An April Verde story described "rape culture" in Palo Alto, highlighting events involving Paly students allegedly raped off-campus and then called names like "attention whore" and "slut" at school and online through "a barrage of Facebook messages and Tumblr posts.")
An out-gay Paly student reported that he suffered numerous anti-gay attacks in middle school, in person and online, which persist. Recently he discovered several sexually explicit, defamatory and painful-to-read postings on Ask.fm directed at him. He was shaken but resigned when he spoke to the Weekly. "Meanness goes unpunished online and in person, that's just how it is," the student said.
Paly grad Brian Benton started a Twitter account called "Heard on the Quad" in 2012, during his senior year. For about a month, he posted "rumors" about students using initials. "It was pretty vague, but you could tell who stuff was about," he wrote in an "open letter" to PA Gossip Girl. "It was mean. ... I regret Heard on the Quad for the most part. ... I realized I actually did hurt some people, even if it wasn't my goal." He started it mostly as a joke, he told the Weekly, and then was fueled by the attention he got for it online. There's a fine line between humor and hurt that is often crossed online, Benton acknowledged.
Many more examples of online communications with offensive, harassing aspects also can be found scanning through Palo Alto student accounts on Ask.fm, Formspring, Tumblr, Twitter and Facebook -- including group pages such as "Paly Confessions" and "Gunn High School Confessions." (See also the sidebar, "The social 'benefits' of cyberbullying?")
Difficult to investigate
Palo Alto school administrators recognize the expanding influence of social media. Although there are few cyberbullying reports per year, they have seen enough to understand the complexity and potential for damage. Then-Terman Principal Katherine Baker told the Weekly last fall that cyberbullying incidents brought to the school's attention "can take a long, long time to investigate" due to the number of kids involved.
Baker said cyberbullying usually starts with one person saying something nasty about someone else.
"Then it gets spread around. Girls are starting to cry and come in, or they're saying something nasty about someone else. A lot of times it's not true. Sometimes they get into fights on the Internet, like on email, and call each other bad names. Sometimes there's threatening. Sometimes it's girls going to other girls' defenses. ... And at this age, it's really serious to a child when they feel like they don't have any friends left," she said.
Gunn High School Principal Katya Villalobos and Assistant Principal Trinity Klein, interviewed together by the Weekly, referred to the "awful things" they have seen on Facebook as a result of kids within social groups "jockey(ing) for social power." Without Facebook, they indicated, life would be different and in some ways better.
"I think social media has really changed the way students relate to one another," Klein said.
Villalobos pegged "social media" as the "biggest tool that our kids have in terms of bullying." A close second was the fact that teens don't always think before they "spout just what they feel."
Former Palo Alto Police School Resource Officer Dan Pojanamat said he sees social media issues as "huge." He told the Weekly last fall that he was getting a call about bullying about once a week during the school year, and about half involved cyberbullying.
"I guarantee that there's much more cyberbullying than there is bullying and that 99 percent of it is unreported," he said.
Many of the incidents reported to Pojanamat involve girls threatening or engaging in physical fights that start with conflict that escalates online.
"It's just so prevalent. ... They just don't think about what they are doing, what they're saying. ... People just advance their thoughts without filter," he said.
Former Paly Principal Phil Winston referenced online pages shown to him: "The language is foul, and vicious. ... Not one of these young folks would say anything like that in person. There's such power in not being able to see the person you are hurting."
"Don't get me wrong, we hear plenty of cussing and foul language around campus, but it's not the intensity or the vulgarity that's used in social media," Winston said. The language used, and its spread through rumors, is like "water torture, drip, drip, drip, eating away at young people's self-esteem."
Experts studying social media see reason for concern.
"We're witnessing the rise of new forms of damaging, destructive interpersonal behavior, like cyberbullying, that are facilitated by digital platforms," Steyer wrote. "It's a lot easier to say or do something truly hurtful to someone else, without considering the consequences, when it requires only a few keystrokes on a computer or cell phone."
Are parents equipped for this?
Adults can try to educate kids with information about how to make healthy choices and the importance of being respectful online, including setting limits around Internet use, but adults often have such limited knowledge about the territory, their wisdom only goes so far.
"Many of the parents and teachers I encountered while researching this book told me how helpless they feel dealing with Facebook and the onslaught of 24/7 digital reality it represents. They feel isolated in their concerns … and overwhelmed and powerless to do anything about it," Steyer wrote.
"Parents have this thing: 'Oh, it's on Facebook. I don't understand Facebook. I can't engage because I don't know what to do,'" Facebook engineering director Arturo Bejar told the Weekly. Bejar is in charge of the company's research and development of online tools to help users resolve conflicts. He believes parents do possess the wisdom necessary to guide their children in cyberspace, based on their own life experience about how to treat people, handle conflict and approach risks. (See sidebar: "Advice for parents in the digital age.")
Many Palo Alto school administrators and teachers share parents' fears, concerns and sense of being overwhelmed about social media's challenges. They realize that hurtful exchanges occur between students online. They see how weekend online activity can bleed onto campus and affect school relationships, classroom learning and climate. Yet they can't regulate its off-campus use, and their ability to deal with its impacts is constrained by law, resources and the paucity of reports they receive from students.
"I wish there was a way for us to control the social media but there isn't, so sometimes there's stuff going on, and I'm sure there is, that we never ever find out about or hear about," Winston told the Weekly.
"I fear there's a whole world out there that I don't see," one Gunn teacher told the Weekly.
A Palo Alto middle school teacher said that her students tell her bullying is "cyber-stuff mostly," but she doesn't see it in the classroom.
When cyber-problems do arrive on the school doorstep, they can involve highly charged emotions, anonymous perpetrators, complex interactions, and tricky jurisdictional issues about discipline. Several administrators indicated that they'd much rather deal with an in-person school conflict than the more difficult task of unraveling and resolving a cyber-event. (See sidebar: "School rules and laws related to online abuse.")
Administrators report that they generally try to resolve cyber-incidents through student and parent conferences, mediation, counseling and other support, and may contact the Internet provider to request material be deleted. In more serious incidents, police may be called and discipline meted out, especially if a physical fight has occurred as part of the mix.
Palo Alto school administrators have contacted Facebook more than once to get the "Confessions" pages deleted, according to an April email from district official Ann Dunkin.
"Students post their confessions anonymously and others respond. ... Some are innocuous, but other confessions can be very hurtful to others," Dunkin wrote. Months later, these pages remain on Facebook.
While schools have embraced their role in educating students around cybercitizenship, starting in second grade and continuing through high school, most school officials see parents as primarily responsible for their kids' off-campus social media use.
"Parents are really the ones with the power and control," Winston said.
Yet when a disturbing cyber-incident comes to light, parents often turn to schools to take action.
"It's very easy for one side to point the finger at the other, but it really is the community working together, and that means parents and educators and children -- everybody together," said Gloria Moskowitz-Sweet, co-founder of My Digital Tat2, a Palo Alto business that educates youth and adults about responsible cybercitizenship. (See sidebar: "Bringing lessons on social kindness into cyberspace.")
Why kids won't talk to adults about it
Diana, like most teens, did not consider telling her parents about her cyberbullying experience and how it was impacting her. She feared they would react emotionally, would try to fix it and/or worry excessively. She saw their possible reactions as universally unhelpful. What Diana said she needed to hear was: "Talk to me; tell me what is going on. I'm here for you." But she could not imagine that result.
In desperation, Diana consulted her school guidance counselor.
"It turned out terrible," Diana said.
She told the counselor how sad she was, and the counselor's response was to hand Diana a "suicide contract" -- a promise not to kill herself.
"This was the most imperfect solution," Diana said. "I was expecting help with the pain I was feeling."
Instead she felt even more isolated. The counselor checked in with her later, but Diana fended her off, saying she was fine. The counselor called her sadness a phase.
"It wasn't a phase. It took me years to grow back my self-esteem," Diana said.
Other teens do not talk to adults because they don't want to hand them another reason to fear technology, or trigger limits on its use. They don't want adults thinking of their world -- with social media an integral part -- as bad or wrong. Teens also worry that parents will want to talk to other kids' parents or to the school. In telling adults, youth put at risk their hard-won social independence and control and also invite retaliation by their peers.
For many teens, it's only the most egregious case that warrants adult intervention -- incidents causing extreme distress, depression or suicidal thoughts. Teens set the bar high for labeling a cyber-act "cyberbullying." Adult concepts about "cyberbullying" are "outdated," according to teens.
"I have a weird association with that word," one teen said.
This is one reason, they say, that Palo Alto student surveys show low rates of cyberbullying; teens are reluctant to apply adult definitions to their nuanced online world and shy away from the word "bullying."
"We imagine bullies as the 'big bad guys' ganging up on someone in a corner, an image that doesn't align with the reality of social media," a February Verde editorial stated.
The reaction teens expect from one another also keeps them from calling attention to hurtful behavior. The social norm, teens agree, is to act unaffected or laugh it off. If you don't, you're not cool. Diana followed this playbook when she was cyberbullied. She continued to act happy in order to fit in.
Regardless of outward demeanor, many teens say they feel compelled to check social media constantly -- and anxiously. In doing so, they allow what is said in front of huge audiences, or the number of "likes" they receive, to determine their sense of self-worth.
Not everyone sees this as a problem. A large number of teens say they are unbothered by mean or offensive language online. Common refrains include: "We are used to it," "We don't know anything different," "There's nothing to be done to change it," "They were just trying to be funny," "It didn't involve me or my friends," and "Things online blow over very quickly."
Many teens say they find online conflicts, mean comments, sexual content and jokes at others' expense to be "entertaining," even as they also say they wouldn't want to be the focus of such attention.
The lasting impact on youth
While students are protective about their online life, and find many positives in their experiences with it, youth experts studying today's teens worry about the downsides of this regular exposure to mean or offensive words and images, including costs to real-life relationships.
In six years working with Palo Alto teens, city Recreation Department Teen Services Coordinator Jessica Lewis has noticed the impact of social media on teens' relationships. She sees fewer traditional, "really close" friendships. She works to create opportunities for teens to practice face-to-face communication and conflict resolution as important skills for building healthy, rewarding relationships in the real world. Online tools cannot replace the power of in-person interactions, and too much online dependence affects important socialization processes. Lewis helps teens to focus on building and appreciating the value of these in-person skills and relationships, as an important balance to what occurs online.
Diana has felt the impact of social media on her peer relationships, even today.
"I feel like I'm always being watched and judged," she said.
Her solution is to maintain a wide circle of surface-level friends. It's less risky if it's less intimate, she said, although she admits it's also more isolating. It helps that she has a best friend she trusts outside the school community.
It's not just the cyber-targets who are leery. The large bystander audiences also absorb the blows at some level, according to experts.
"Every act of social cruelty not only endangers the victim, but puts everyone on guard by undermining the social safety of all; each act is an example of what can happen to anyone who is not careful. This is why everyone is victimized," psychologist Carl Pickhardt wrote.
Youth experts are especially concerned about the "shy, sensitive" types who can be more adversely affected by witnessing cruel acts done to others.
According to Pew Research Center, 88 percent of teens say they have witnessed people being mean and cruel to another person online. Common Sense Media's 2012 research shows that about four in 10 teenaged social-media users say they often or sometimes encounter sexist, homophobic or racist comments online. One in four report they "often" encounter one or more of these types of derogatory speech.
Some educators and parents wish kids would avoid social media; more than one adult told the Weekly their advice to kids was "Stay off it!" In fact some kids do just that, depending on the school, family, kid's temperament and whether the child is plugged into a passion not based online, according to Harvard Medical School instructor, researcher and psychologist Catherine Steiner-Adair (author of "The Big Disconnect: Protecting Childhood and Family Relationships in the Digital Age"). Still the vast majority of teens enjoy the many positive benefits of social media but also fear that relaxing their online grip would lead to unacceptable cost to their social lives.
What teens encounter on social media, how they choose to act within its parameters, and the impacts on them are still evolving questions for study, discussion and debate. Experts agree there is no "magic bullet" solution to the challenge of creating the healthiest possible online environment for youth.
"We just don't know yet what the right way is," Lewis said.
Steyer and other experts believe the path starts with understanding the territory.
"The bottom line is clear. We need to know what's happening in our kids' digital lives, talk with them about what they're seeing and experiencing, and teach them to think critically about the images and messages they encounter. We need to limit their access to certain media and technology, starting when they're very young. And we have to stay involved in how they process messages and images as they gain independence," Steyer wrote.
For Diana, it was her friends outside school circles who most helped in re-building her confidence. High school also offered a fresh start.
"I tried to channel my energies and focus on what I could do and enjoy," she said.
She considers herself "lucky" to have regained her sense of well-being.
"People react differently when they are bullied. Some isolate and disappear. Others engage in more self-destructive behaviors like drugs, alcohol, cutting and eating disorders. Most remain extremely self-conscious and insecure."
Diana now looks for ways to help others, especially new students. She also thinks younger teens need a safe venue for bullying support groups, to combat the feelings of isolation she so acutely experienced during her middle school years. Diana has since learned to stand up to mean behavior when she sees it, online or in person. It takes "awareness and courage," she said, but she finds the strength when she remembers her own experience and her resolve to speak up against mistreatment.
As Diana and other youth make clear, it's not easy pioneering this land with its many new attractions and risks. It's a lot of responsibility in the hands of young teens.
How 'Power to hurt' came about
Reporting for "Power to hurt" began last fall as reporter Terri Lobdell sought information to uncover why some kids behave cruelly toward others, the impacts of that cruelty, how school officials and other adults handle bullying incidents, and the myriad programs and activities focused on bullying prevention and social kindness.
For this in-depth look at the role social media plays in amplifying mean-spirited behavior among youth, the Weekly sought to hear from those most knowledgeable and most closely affected: the teens. In interviews with about 50 youth, the Weekly heard about some benefits of social media but also about its darker side, including offensive language, mean rumors and offensive images that are spread to large audiences.
This cover story also explores why it is so difficult for adults to keep up with what's happening on social media and to provide effective guidance. Numerous adult experts have contributed their perspectives to these articles as well.
The vast majority of teens asked for anonymity and elimination of identifying details. Except in a few cases, in which teens had already published on this topic under their name, the youth providing information for this series are not named. Some adults interviewed also are not named due to the sensitivity of the topics discussed.