By Eduardo Barraza
September 12, 2016
(Gilbert, Arizona) –– As more children are becoming active on social media at a younger age than ever, the risks of the online world are also increasing.
Risks come in the form of cyberbullying or hate speech and they generate a hostile environment for Internet users of all ages, but younger people are more vulnerable and exposed to adverse consequences.
However, there is another kind of risk, one not too many people are willing to take, particularly young people: taking the risk to confront cyberbullying and negative online comments.
That’s precisely the risk junior high students Betsy Hughes and Kenzie McKallor are taking as they have decided to challenge, in a positive way, the negativity they see on social media sites like Facebook and Instagram.
“We just noticed a lot of negativity going around on the online community, mainly over social media, and we decided we wanted to change that,” said Hughes.
As the 13-year-olds began to talk among themselves about online negativity, they discovered they share equal thoughts and feelings, and both felt prompted to take action.
“There's too much negativity right now, especially at our age,” said McKallor. “There's people that just bring each other down online. We want to do something positive for everybody.”
Hughes and McKallor, both 8th-graders at South Valley Junior High, began to notice that many of their friends were making good online decisions, but others weren’t. That’s when they decided to act and do something about it.
“We came together one day and said: Hey! I don't think this is right,” said Hughes.
The students took their first step last spring by approaching their school principal, Tim Cannon, who was receptive to the teenagers’ concern. He threw his support behind the youngsters since day one, and encouraged them to talk more about it.
“They actually came to me; we talked and they said that they would like to do something,” said Cannon. “I was really excited for them.”
A positive online campaign is born
Over summer vacation and as the new school year approached, Hughes and McKallor geared up to launch a new online campaign called “Posting the Positive.”
In the pure spirit of young activism and with Cannon’s input, their idea took shape and produced a website, a logo and a video.
By August 3, the first day of the 2016-2017 school year, the campaign was in motion, and ready just in time to have prime exposure, as a school bus tour planned by the Gilbert Public Schools district office was scheduled to make its first stop at South Valley.
To officially kick in the school year, Gilbert’s Superintendent Christina Kishimoto, along School Board members, elected officials and community and business leaders, rode a school bus to visit a handful of schools —including South Valley— on the first day of school.
During this visit, Hughes and McKallor had the opportunity to present their campaign before Dr. Kishimoto, Gilbert’s Mayor Jenn Daniels, some School Board members and other dignitaries.
The visit allowed the students to get word out about the “Posting the Positive” campaign on the very first day of school, and in front of key decision-makers.
After the visit, their video has been shown in school assemblies and in every classroom. According to Cannon, the campaign’s message has been well received by all school groups.
In addition to watching the video, students were given a questionnaire to answer in their own words what is the campaign’s message, and how they think they can make the Internet safer. They were also asked to write a sample positive post, just like the ones Hughes and McKallor are advocating for.
A campaign larger than one school
Although the “Posting the Positive” campaign seems to be having the desired effect at the local level, Cannon also acknowledges cyberbullying and negative comments are issues that everybody and every school is dealing with.
“I think this is going to be a beginning of something much bigger than South Valley,” said Cannon.
According to the “Indicators of School Crime and Safety: 2015” survey (the most recent available), cyberbullying is distinct from bullying at school. However, the study points out that “bullying at school might be a pertinent context to understand cyberbullying anywhere.”
According to the report, in 2013, a higher percentage of females than of males ages 12–18 reported being bullied at school during the school year. Also, higher percentages of females than of males reported that they were made fun of, called names, or insulted, were the subject of rumors and were excluded from activities on purpose.
The survey analyzes 23 indicators, one of them being cyberbullying.
Cyberbullying —the use of electronic communication to bully a person— includes posting hurtful information on the Internet, having private information purposely shared, being the subject of harassing instant or text messages, threatening or insulting another student through instant messaging, text messaging and e-mail, or while gaming or excluding the student online.
Based on the feedback Hughes and McKallor’s campaign has received, Cannon is optimistic it can be piloted in other schools, not just locally but elsewhere.
“The feedback that I’m getting is amazing,” said Cannon. “People are really excited that somebody is willing to step up and do this. The faculty is very excited that these students are taking these challenges, because it's huge; we really don't know where it’s going to go.”
The feedback includes comments written by most of the more than 1,100 students who attend South Valley and have watched the video.
“Be nice to people online,” reads one comment. “Don’t cyberbully or be mean to people when online.”
Another one reads: “…show how you can make the Internet a better place…there is a lot of drama and hate on social media, and it’s a good thing to try and put some positive in there…”
Hughes and McKallor have also realized the campaign can be replicated in other schools, so they hope more young people will get involved.
The campaign’s website states that it was started to help out South Valley students, but that the intended purpose can extend far beyond.
Students who want to get involved can begin by following the campaign’s Instagram or Facebook accounts, using the hashtags #postingthepositive and #heart when posting on social media, or by creating their own hashtags for their particular school using #postingthepositive plus their school’s initials at the end.
Students who want to join the campaign need to also have a vision similar to Hughes and McKallor’s.
“We don't want to see negativity online,” said Hughes. “We want people to have in their minds that if they are about to post something online, they need to see if a person will like it or if the person will be offended.”
When it comes to the role parents play in fighting cyberbullying, the teenagers agree that they must play an important role.
“It’s very important for parents to be involved because kids can think they can do whatever they want online,” said McKallor. “They need to know their future can be affected by what they post.”
From Cannon’s perspective, the same action is required whether a student is being a victim of cyberbullying or an activist wanting to stop it, to fight a risk taking another risk.
“The message is: take a little bit of a risk; tell somebody,” said Cannon. “Kids need to know that they can talk to adults. You can still be cool and be nice and kind.”
Certainly, for Hughes and McKallor taking that risk began by talking to the school’s principal, a risk that is now encouraging hundreds of others to start —as the campaign’s motto says— “changing the online community, one positive post at a time.”
For more information on the “Positing the Positive” campaign, visit: http://postingthepositive.com/