InstaSlammed: A Teacher’s Introduction to Cyberbullying

I am the adult in the room. When I’m teaching my seventh graders Math and Science, I remind myself of that often. Kids will be kids after all, right? I knew this when I started teaching sixth grade thirteen years ago, and when I moved to seventh grade a few years ago.
Although it is common knowledge that middle school can be a hard age to teach, I love the energy, curiosity, and sense of hope among them. There is nothing quite like a good day teaching: sharing an exciting discovery in a Science lab; seeing a student persevere through a challenging math problem; watching students show compassion to each other. I’m inspired by these moments. I can let go of most of the other not-so-inspiring moments – like disciplining misbehaving students – because I know I am the adult in the room, and they are just kids.
But what happens when kids will be kids doesn’t qualify as an excuse anymore? What happens when a line is crossed?
What happens when a teacher feels like she is being cyberbullied by her own students?
Welcome to Generation Z. Generation InstaMeme. These are not just Digital Natives, kids who have grown up with a device in their hands for most of their lives, but they are Social Media Natives, even if only on YouTube. They have been raised on tablets and smartphones to occupy any empty or anxious moment. The ability to just sit, without stimulus, seems to be a thing of the past. Their devices serve as virtual babysitters.
They are trained to expect convenience, instant gratification, and an endless stream of entertainment, mostly based upon laughing at others’ failures. They are learning that they don’t have to work hard to get what they want; they can just google it. Surely, devices can be productive learning tools when used moderately and with guidance. As an educator, I use technology regularly in my classroom. But I draw a line on calculators, except for very large numbers, like statistics, or for double-checking answers. Pre-Algebra is all about mastering the foundations of Mathematics so that you can apply them to more abstract subjects in later courses.
Over the years, I’ve watched my students grow more and more dependent upon technology. In the start of the year, I still get a few students who turn in Math homework with no work shown, only to get a zero score, because, as any Math teacher knows, no work equals no credit. You cannot just turn in a page full of answers with no justification. This is reinforced from Day 1 of school, but some students start the year so reliant on a calculator to do the work for them, it may take them a few, or several, zeroes before they break that habit. Once they start doing the work themselves, they realize how much they need that practice. And they usually improve. Practice. Practice makes progress. I’m never looking for perfection, anywhere in life. But practice is paramount to any success story, no matter the endeavor.
Perhaps this generation needs some more practice interacting face-to-face with humans. Spending time actually talking and listening to each other, not through the interface of their devices. They need to practice compassion.
It can be hard to practice compassion when you’ve been spent much of your childhood laughing at other people. Just think about it – what makes a YouTube video go viral? It’s usually a wipeout, epic fail, parody, prank, or meme. Though we adults may partake in such viewing on occasion, we remember a time when you would never hear about someone’s wipeout on a skateboard, let alone have millions of people commenting on it on the internet. Laughing at other people is what they’ve grown up doing; YouTube videos, and other videos, are a regular sources of entertainment. But they’re not laughing to their faces. They’re laughing behind their own computer screens. They’re dehumanizing each other, living in a virtual Wild West trying to one up each other. It’s all about who can take it to the next extreme, get the most likes, and the most cyberattention possible.
I knew that cyberbullying was a big problem for this generation, but I never worried about how it might affect me. I recently had the unfortunate introduction to the world of cyberbullying of teachers by students. It began last year in the springtime. We were doing a Math problem in one of my Math classes involving Legos, but I didn’t have any actual Legos at the time. Here is a picture of the original question.

LegoProblem

Open-ended questions can send Math students into a panic, especially when they don’t know the answer. Though they can perform number operations with automaticity, they can struggle with the practical application of math. This problem was no different. Students were coming up with some different answers; some were getting defensive. I realized that the answer could vary depending upon the size of the Lego, and tried to explain that. Without any manipulatives to exemplify what I meant, I admit I was unclear. It wasn’t my best teaching moment, sure. I’m not too proud to acknowledge when I fall short. But some of my students looked at me like I was crazy. Some started googling images of Legos, speaking to me in a childlike voice and saying, Mrs. Deetz, this is a Lego.
When the bell rang, I was relieved. That night, a student who I don’t teach tagged me in an Instagram post. It was a meme of a Lego, with some mocking and criticizing what had happened in my class that day. I didn’t look long at it or the comments, and dismissed it as just kids being kids. I removed myself from the post and let it go. I was happy one student was nice enough and had the integrity to let me know about it, but some of the other kids had latched onto it.
The next day at school, I brought in actual Legos to redo the Math problem again. Using different size Legos, we built different models to prove how the answer depended upon the size. But I could feel some of my students laughing at me behind my back.
I had become a meme – something to jeer, to ridicule and look down on. Though immature and baseless as their actions may be as seventh graders, it still disappointed me that there should fester such meanness among some of the students I teach. Apparently, I’d lost the respect of many students that day. Never mind the awesome months of August through April, when they were happy, interested, and friendly students to me in class. Never mind all the cool activities and labs I’d done with them. One day, one meme, and it was all out the window.
I tried to move on from the situation and ignore it, but I could feel my classroom devolving as June approached. Though I had plenty of hard-working, nice students, I could tell they were intimidated to participate as they usually did. When the last day arrived, I left school to enjoy my Summer wholeheartedly, as I always do. I left the meme-making kids behind. I am the adult in the room, after all, and I had more important things to do than dwell on such nonsense.
Then, over the Summer, I noticed a bunch of my videos from my YouTube channel get thumbs-downed and commented on, with a fake account made in the name of a former teacher from our school. I knew then it was likely the same students from the meme. They made sexual comments that I reported to YouTube, and promptly deleted. Of course, the next thing I did was disable commenting and the vote counter. I built a wall around my channel and let it go again, because, you know, kids will be kids.
I started this school year with a fresh perspective. Walking past groups of the current eighth graders involved, though, I would hear them snicker at me. A storm is brewing, I thought to myself. I could sense that it wasn’t over. Then, someone asked me, with a sly smile, if I knew what a Lego was. I dismissed it and moved on, not giving attention to it, but I knew that meme had lived on with my current students. But I let it go, again. Because I knew I was better than that, and kids will be kids, after all.
That all changed abruptly for me in the last few weeks.

Release the InstaDam…

One day recently at school, a brave student had the courage and compassion to show me something on their phone. The student said they felt awful knowing about it, and wanted it to stop. I braced myself for what I was about to see.
It was an Instagram account that was full of memes of us teachers. There were pictures of us with our backs turned in the classroom; sitting at our desks, looking awkwardly to the side, clearly taken without our consent. There were memes about me, some made with my downloaded images off my Instagram before I made it private. Almost all of us teachers were either pictured or mentioned on there. I looked half-way at some of the posts before I didn’t want to see anymore. I’d seen enough.
My first reaction was to commend this student for their kindness, bravery, and integrity to come forward and show me. This sort of upstanding behavior is exactly what we need from our children. I was moved that they cared enough to let me know. Though I had just awaken to an ugly world, I was simultaneously heartwarmed by this student’s actions. It reminded me, in an ironic way, of why I teach in the first place.
When I went home that day and told my husband Ron what had happened, he immediately went on his Instagram and accessed the meme page. Doing a little CSI, we looked even more at the memes. There were even more pages, but I stopped looking after seeing the broad strokes. How many other pages must be out there debasing us teachers? How much did I still not know about? For only a few days before, I didn’t even know that I didn’t know what I know now, if that makes any sense.
I was disgusted. I’d been InstaSlammed. The InstaDam had been released.
It seems like middle-schoolers are notorious for complaining about their teachers, but this felt different. Did these kids not have anything better to do? Though I’m secure in myself and teaching, the build-up of everything finally got to me. I have a heart of gold, and for better or worse, I’m not afraid to feel my emotions. I felt angry, and a bit violated.
A few of my Instagram photos had been altered into memes – nothing too horrendous, but undoubtedly besmirching my character, and derogatory in nature. Most disturbing was a separate meme about murdering a group of animated characters; though not referencing an actual person, the message was certainly unsettling.
My stomach hurt. Looking at all the students who liked or commented on the post magnified the severity of the situation. So many of my students were complicit in the mocking and arguable defamation of us teachers. Even some of the nice kids were involved. I could not believe my eyes.
Ron was fired up, and with me, fervently researched the issue. We were not surprised to learn of the many challenges to get cyberbullying laws passed, as the first amendment offers a wide umbrella of protection under free speech. I was shocked to learn how few legal protections we teachers have from cyberbullying in California. Though California Education Code has several protections against bullying and harassment, only North Carolina has a law explicitly protecting teachers, passed in 2012. The language to protect students is clear and indisputable in most bylaws, but not typically for teachers and staff. Ron was on the verge of exploring legal avenues; hostile work environment and defamation of character, he noted. He cited several cases of teachers suing for cyberbullying by their students. Though not something I’m interested in pursuing, I realized there were some legal options should things worsen.
We watched a Showtime documentary called Dark Net, detailing a teacher’s experience with severe cyberbullying. I learned what cyberbaiting was, which made me always assume I’m being recorded in the classroom. I was literally disgusted, again, by what I was learning. I read as many articles as I could find on the topic; stories of teachers who’d experienced far worse. I came across a story of a teacher who took a leave of absence as a result of her experience being cyberbullied by her students. Though my experience paled in comparison to hers, I strongly related to her feelings. The loss of your classroom culture, and your community’s respect can be irrecoverable. I also read about teachers who felt their feelings were dismissed; that they were supposed to suck it up and deal with it, since they were the adult in the room, and kids will be kids.
Later that night, we coincidentally watched the season premiere of Broad City, a hilarious show, and it just happened to be shot in the format of a meme. It hit a little too close to home. My husband and I both looked at each other and said, Did the world just change overnight? We felt like we’d both just awaken to this new, ridiculous world: The InstaMemes. Generation InstaSlam.
After that, I sent my administration screenshot pictures of what I’d seen, along with the student’s names involved. When the student was back in my class the next day, I requested that the student have a more serious consequence, and though I won’t discuss it here, suffice it to say that student is no longer an issue for me. My administration handled it well and were supportive, as usual, though I requested that our student contract and Ed Code be updated with specific language to protect teachers from cyberbullying. I also asked for some kind of anti-bullying activities for our student body that would address teachers and staff as well.
A couple of days later, every teacher on campus spoke with their classes about what had happened. Though most teachers didn’t see all of the memes that I saw, they were disturbed knowing they were out there. They were compassionate and supportive. We are family. If you come for one of us, you come for all of us, a teacher declared.
I thought about how I was going to talk to my students about the incident. The best defense is to show no reaction, I had mulled over in my head. True, it’s good to not react to bullies, to show you’re stronger than them. Happiness is the best revenge. Though I felt like soldiering on, I ultimately chose authenticity over being disingenuous; I spoke from the heart, the only way I know how, really.
With raw emotion and honesty, I explained to each of my classes not only what had happened, but how it affected me. As I explained to my students that some of us teachers were being cyberbullied, I wasn’t scared to let them see me tear up a few times. I explained how it felt to have that trust broken; to have to wonder if someone was going to take my picture and make a meme. Speaking passionately, I implored them to be upstanders – if they see something, say something. What had hurt just as bad was knowing this page had been up for months, and only one student had the respect to tell me about it.
We spoke about how serious cyberbullying is; that it can drive teens to self-harm or suicide. I expressed my concern for them. I told them I was an adult and could handle it, but I was worried for them as children. How do they feel when they are the victim of bullying? It seemed like I had reached many of my students, and some teared up. I knew the problem wasn’t solved, though.
How was I to continue teaching when I was just a meme to some of my students? I found myself questioning whether something I said or did in the classroom would be made into a meme later. Would I be jeered behind my back the next day?
I got many letters and kind words from students, to my surprise. I reread some of the old letters students have given me over the years, which really lifted my spirits. The common compliments were that I was always smiling, enthusiastic, cool, friendly, and clear when explaining things. It reaffirmed me to read them.

KindNotes

I realized, though, that I’d experienced a full cycle of bullying, from a more analog age to a digital one. In my fifth and sixth grade years of elementary school, I was an athletic, happy kid with lots of friends. I was often called a tomboy. I also had a 13 mm overbite, terrible acne, and a skinny body with a huge chest for my age. That’s when the name-calling started. It was only a few people, but over time, those voices drowned out so much of the good I was feeling. There was no digital platform to sling mud back then, only cruel words delivered in black and white, in stereo.
Bucky! Horseface! They’d yell, neighing at me and whinnying like a horse. Mr. Ed!
Pizzaface! I couldn’t hide it my breakouts.
Silicone! As a young girl growing up, you can already feel incredibly awkward in your own skin. When you’re the only one in your class who looks like I did? You stand out as a target. I felt like something was wrong with me. My self-esteem took a hit.
I eventually grew into my own body. I settled into my idiosyncrasies and strengths; braces, Clearasil, and growing out of adolescence definitely helped. A couple of the kids who’d bullied me apologized to me by the time we were in high school, genuinely sorry for hurling such meanness at me.
As is true with all bullies, they were acting out because they were unhappy about something going on in their own life; they were insecure about something. Misery loves company. Happy, secure people don’t bully other people; they want others to be happy as well, to join the party. I felt like I could forgive them because we were just kids. And I was confident enough in myself to let it go.
When the InstaSlam dam broke a few weeks ago, my first instinct was the just the same: I’m secure enough in myself to let it go; to recognize these are just kids acting out. I am the adult in the room. I know I’m a good teacher and a good person.
But I’m human, and I feel emotions, too. I was truly saddened by what I was suddenly privy to. Ignorance is bliss, and now, I was sadly informed. I wasn’t so upset by their meritless insults; I was confounded by the meanness. How did they treat their peers? Their parents?
The next week, I found myself feeling on-guard in my own classroom. Though it is still my school, I felt uncomfortable knowing so many students had participated in mocking me and other teachers. As I walked down the hallway, I could see some people whispering and laughing. I felt like I was back in middle-school myself, all of the sudden.
I felt forlorn about the situation; so disappointed. I felt like I couldn’t turn my back or relax anymore. The trust was broken, and that’s hard to recover. I stopped using the laptops in the classroom for that week, fearing misuse.
Why did some of these kids love to hate their teachers so much? One in seven teachers may experience cyberbullying in their career, and though it has been happening for years, it is only growing louder and more aggressive. It doesn’t stop on the Internet; it sends shockwaves into the real world.
Soon after, another student whom I don’t teach posted a threat about a school shooting. Though it was quickly deemed non-credible, and dealt with very seriously, it proved to me that this problem is only escalating. This was not just a case of kids will be kids. The potential ramifications were scary. With how many school shootings happen these days, it’s a terrifying possibility that you can never ignore. It usually starts with a progression of some anti-social or bullying behavior, and it’s imperative that it be quelled.

Reflections…

I think human reactions are a lot like different types of glass. There are many kinds – single-pane, milk, volcanic, shatterproof, leaded, the list goes on. When attacked by a thrown insult, we react similarly. Somethings we may be bulletproof to; others we may feel the impact.
When we’re young, we’re fragile like single-pane glass; we’re more likely to break. As we grow older and wiser, we become tempered – able to tolerate fluctuating temperatures and conditions, stronger with more integrity. Bulletproof glass, while a lofty goal, isn’t realistic for every situation in life. No matter how strong or secure you feel with yourself, we’re all human. We’re not bulletproof to everything. Trying to keep a nice, even temper, so to speak, is a good approach.
But what happens if you throw a brick at a car windshield? It will still crack in many different directions, like a bomb going off. Bullying is like a brick. Even if you’re as tough as tempered glass, you’re going to have some damage.
I can let a lot of things go like water off a duck’s back. I know what I can and can’t control. There are two things, however, that tend to raise my hackles: injustice, and dishonesty. I have always cared passionately about fairness, equity, and truth. Maybe it’s from being the youngest of three girls, and having to work harder to get my fair share. That protectiveness extended to animals, too. Watching the environment be ravaged and polluted has been breaking my heart as long as I can remember, which is one of the reasons I became a Science teacher. I love seeing my students care about the environment.
I abhor when they lie or cheat. Lying, cheating, and deceit are deal-breakers for me. If a student lies to me, it is so hard to get that trust back. But if they own up to something and just admit what they’ve done? Usually it’s not so bad. Cheating is rampant these days. You can tell when a student has googled an answer and has no idea what they’re talking about. Though consequences are enacted for plagiarism and cheating, it is widespread. I often wonder if we’ll have a truly educated populace in the future; where will our doctors, inventors, and scientists come from? Not everyone can make it as a Social Influencer on Instagram, Kids. And what about that little thing called integrity?
I am truly concerned for this generation of children. Roughly one out of three students in the United States report being bullied in some form. I feel awful for them. Adolescence can be hard enough, but now they have to deal with this, too? I am strong enough to put myself above this, but how would it feel if I were living it everyday as a child?
I worry for their mental health, for their happiness. Despite the social risks of using social media, their dependence upon their devices is alarming; most kids I know seem addicted to them. In the morning before school, there are groups upon groups of them huddled around their phones, eyes locked downward, barely talking to each other. When the bell rings, it’s the first thing they turn on. Most kids I know covet screentime like a precious treasure, whether on their phone, on a computer, or on television. Our culture only fosters that craving.
I know many adults are addicted to their phones, too. But these kids don’t remember a time in their life when they didn’t have it. They are suffering from The Casino Effect. Have you ever spent a few hours in a casino? You know how when you leave to a quiet place, you can still hear the cacophony of the slot machines? You can still see the pulsing, neon lights flashing in the backs of your eyes long after you’ve faded into the darkness. It takes awhile to decompress from all of that stimuli, leaving you in a heightened state of alert, expecting some kind of reward. Phones are like casinos, an endless source of entertainment and reward. Our kids are living in a world of incessantly ringing bells, blinking lights, and infinite scrolls. There is no end to the Internet. They’re so on all the time, they don’t know what to do when they have a quiet moment. Overstimulated is an understatement.
Lost in all of this chaos is humanity. It feels like we are being dehumanized. Everyone can seemingly be reduced to a meme – something to be laughed and pointed at. People don’t connect their words with how it makes someone feel. Today’s youth have learned that everyone can become a meme, anyone can be a reality star, and we all have a voice in the Internet Court of Opinion.
That’s a big difference between my generation and today’s. While people may have mocked teachers in the past, it was confined maybe to a note, a scribble on a wall, or a rumor. Though still hurtful, it didn’t persist on the Internet like tweets, shares, and posts do today. Kids now have a public platform to share their every thought.
And what do they have to look up to for an example? Republican, Democrat and everyone in between can see the lack of decorum in today’s political climate. The fact that our president’s primary method of communication with his constituents is Twitter further cements the culture of antagonistic online behavior. All of the mocking, insulting, and negativity they engage in on Instagram is a reflection of what most adults are doing on their social media, including their own president. There is an overarching loss of civility and respect, and children are learning it’s acceptable.
Parenting is certainly a big part of it. Does every parent monitor their child’s social media account? Do they know what they are liking, sharing, and commenting on? Are they raising their children to be conscientious, compassionate citizens who respect their elders? I see evidence that many parents are doing a wonderful job raising their children, but I think they’re in a whole new world, too. It’s hard to keep up, and kids can be sneaky with their online activity. We’re in unprecedented territory, and we need to think long-term about how it’s going to affect the future. Social media and the Internet are never going away, at least not in our lifetimes. We ought to prioritize instilling values in our children before we have a generation of entitled, dysfunctional adults with no manners; necks down, eyes fixated on their devices, living in a dehumanized virtual world of zeros and ones.
I’m still feeling quite disillusioned from this whole experience, but I sure hope this generation proves me wrong. Time will tell. I am trying to stay focused on the positive, and keep things in perspective. I have some amazing students who deserve my follow-through and leadership; who deserve to learn in a safe, productive environment. Though this has been one of the hardest things I’ve dealt with in my thirteen years of teaching, it’s not the hardest thing I’ve ever dealt with, by any means. At the end of the day, I am still the adult in the room. I am better than any insult or mockery. I will not live my life in fear of what a handful of kids will do. For anyone who continues to do that, it only reflects poorly on them. I’ve seen enough in my life, from childhood to adulthood, to know one thing for sure: happy people don’t bully others.
There is positive progress being made to foster compassion and sensitivity among our youth. I am inspired by the work of others to spread kindness and positive digital citizenship. I found a lot of helpful information from the following websites: Stop Bullying, Anti-Bullying Institute, Stomp Out Bullying, Pacer National Bullying Prevention Center, No Bully, and the #imkinderthanthat movement. It starts with education, awareness, and sharing stories. Then, it’s all about action in the real world, not just online. It’s about how we treat each other in our everyday lives, in day to day interactions. We have a choice about how we treat each other, and what kind of treatment we will allow from others. As adults, we ought to set positive examples for our children, and guide them in the right direction. It takes the support of community – parents, peers, teachers, friends, coaches – the broader network that surrounds our children. At the end of the day, though, we need our children to take heed and take action. They’ll become our future voters, leaders, and eventually our caretakers, before we know it.
I know many awesome, kind kids out there, many sitting right in my classroom. I see you. You have heart; you have goals. You practice respect, compassion, and show humanity. I hope you’ll take the courageous lead for those who cannot yet see the path. Prove us wrong that kindness is a fading virtue among today’s youth. More importantly, I hope you’ll prove it to yourselves that you’re better than that.
Redefine what it means to say that kids will be kids.

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