CAMBRIDGE, Mass.--A grassroots organization is working on a help line to support kids dealing with cyberbullying and other online issues, particularly on social networks.
In an interview Wednesday following a meeting of the Internet Safety Technical Task Force at Harvard University, Parry Aftab, the director of the national advocacy group WiredSafety, said her organization had started working on a pilot project to support cyber-bullying targets in West Chester County, New York.
Aftab and three student volunteers from WiredSafety's Teenangels program spoke at the conference. Teenangels was started in 1999 as a mentoring program that trains teenagers to teach Internet safety issues to kids, parents, and other adults.
Work on the help line project just started Tuesday. It will begin with Teenangels student volunteers from two high schools in West Chester County, and Aftab hopes it will be up and running in that county by Christmas. It will start as text- and instant-messaging only and will be staffed by teens.
"They know what the issues are," Aftab said. There's no timeframe for going national with the program, but Aftab hopes it can grow in the same grassroots or viral method her organization has grown--one community at a time.
Aftab said she had considered doing a help line for years, but had resisted because of liability issues. She now believes that with assistance from Pace University, a planned "escalation" policy will help teen volunteers deal with (or more appropriately, refer to the right emergency resources) anyone who raises issues such as cutting, suicide, or sexual exploitation.
She said she hasn't yet had a chance to discuss how to best work with social networking sites such as Facebook, MySpace, and MyYearbook. But, ideally, she would like to see some sort of widget or application right on the sites that refers to the help line. (In its pilot phase, it would only be available to social groups in West Chester County.)
The Teenangels students and Aftab brought a dose of reality to the ISTTF conference held here at the Harvard Law School. After two days of presentations from academics, companies pitching age control mechanisms for Web sites, and 30-minute presentations from both Facebook and MySpace, it was the students' turn to speak. And what they had to say brought home just how difficult cyberbullying is to deal with.
Perhaps the biggest reason for that is students' behavior: A recent survey of high school students done by the Teenangels found 70 percent of the kids surveyed share passwords with other people. The reasons are often innocuous, such as asking someone to check their e-mail for them, or to find a homework assignment for them. Often, teens in relationships will share passwords to assure one another they're being faithful.
But that can lead to cyberbullying such as changing passwords or posting something on the Internet under that person's name. More troubling, the bulk of cyberbullying is done by friends, and the victims often protect the bullies from getting into trouble.
With that behavior in mind, it makes sense to offer peer support, rather than massive (that critics say could nonetheless be ineffectual) technological expertise (as the ISTTF is investigating), as a method to deal with the problem.