Bullying, Sexting, and MTV’s “Morality Meter”

A Thin Line logoInformation propagates very rapidly on the Internet. That is one of the reasons marketers are continually trying to find ways to leverage the web, be it through Search Engine Optimization (SEO), social media, pop-up/banner ads, etc. Of course, this also applies to the old saying “bad news travels fast.”

By bad news I mean not only news but also a wide variety of negative interactions, many of which have been seen in the mainstream media with increasing frequency. Bullying, obsessive/harassing texts, sexting, spying, and so forth, are all examples of these behaviors.

As we see a generation of kids growing up immersed in the Internet, we are also getting to see the worst of schoolyard behavior going viral. Opinions vary on how to deal with this new phenomenon of online abuse. They run the gamut from laissez faire to the draconian clampdowns on all communication. The final course that gets adopted, I am sure, will end up being somewhere in the middle.

Let’s take the case of Andrew Shirvell, an assistant attorney general for the state of Michigan, for instance. He has waged a blogging campaign against a college student, Chris Armstrong. Armstrong is not only openly gay but is also the student assembly president at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. CNN reports this excerpt from the blog in question:

‘Welcome to ‘Chris Armstrong Watch,” Shirvell wrote in his inaugural blog post. ‘This is a site for concerned University of Michigan alumni, students, and others who oppose the recent election of Chris Armstrong — a RADICAL HOMOSEXUAL ACTIVIST, RACIST, ELITIST, & LIAR — as the new head of student government.’

Not quite what one would expect from a state-level employee. If you’ve the stomach for it, click on the link above and read the whole CNN piece.

Then there is the furor created by the 18-year-olds Dharun Ravi and Molly Wei. The two are charged with  planting a webcam in a Rutgers dorm and broadcasting a classmate, Tyler Celementi, having a same-sex sexual encounter. The classmate is believed to have committed suicide. Here’s the rundown on exactly what they did, as reported by Maureen O’Connor on Gawker:

Dharun and Molly have both been charged with invasion of privacy for broadcasting a classmate’s September 19 sexual encounter. (It’s illegal to create pornography without the subject’s consent in New Jersey.) Local sources report that the victim ‘was believed to have jumped to his death from the George Washington Bridge’ (which connects New Jersey to Manhattan) shortly thereafter. Out on a $25,000 bail, Dharun has deleted his Twitter account, but by the magic of web caches, we found it — and Dharun’s tweets about how he turned on his webcam when his roommate asked for privacy, then went to Molly’s room and caught his roommate ‘making out with a dude.’ Local reports say iChat is the tool Dharun used to stream the video.

While the most recent and hence the highest-profile story of this nature, the fatality noted above is far from being unique. In Cincinnati, another harassment-spurred suicide was in the news not that long ago. Once more, the embarrassing data was of sexual nature. Ki Mae Huessner, a reporter for ABC, talks about it in her recent column:

A Cincinnati high school girl hanged herself in 2008 after a nude cell-phone photo she sent to her boyfriend was sent to 100 students at four different schools.

‘She was harassed. She was called names, filthy names,’ the girl’s mother said. ‘Things are thrown at her. Her reaction to all this was — when she would come home — anger, snapping. And I would ask her what was wrong and… she wasn’t divulging everything, just that she was having a hard time.’

Sad stories, and ones that are becoming more and more common. So, what to do?

As I said before, opinions vary. There are some interesting approaches being explored though, one of them by the media titan MTV. Last March, MTV launched “Over The Line?” — an interactive online resource empowering kids to address the spread of these digital abuses themselves. Here is a quick summary from the press release:

‘Over the Line?’ is a new, online space where young people can share, read and rate personal stories — from humorous to dramatic — about how cell phones and social networking sites are impacting their social lives. The application is an open forum where the audience can ask their peers if digital behavior is over the line, as well as read and rate others’ stories — to collectively draw the line between innocent and inappropriate. This application is available at ATHINLINE.org/overtheline or via Facebook.

With 50 percent of 14-24 year olds in a recent MTV/AP study stating they have been the target of some form of digital abuse, young people are disproportionally affected by this issue, but also best equipped to truly address its viral spread.

I think there is a lot to be said for the idea of crowdsourcing ideas and solutions from the affected kids themselves. For one thing, we should remember that most of them are digital natives. Raised in a time when the Internet is everywhere, especially on your phone, it is almost reflexive for them to use it.

Then again, not being a parent myself, I suspect that my initial reaction might be a bit flawed or lacking in perspective. Fortunately, I have a colleague who has done a good bit of work in this area, and who is a proud mother of two as well. Her name is Michelle Beckham, and she was kind enough to share her initial reaction to “Over The Line?” when I asked:

As a parent of two teens and the owner of a business that is situated at the epicenter of online social interaction, this website caught my attention. My company, C3: Creating Connections Consulting, a social media marketing firm, launched a seminar on Social Networking Safety & Reputation Management for Parents earlier this year that focuses on a lot of the issues raised in the A Thin Line site: cyber-bullying, sexting, flaming, etc. I have talked with many school administrators, parents and Cincinnati area non-profit agencies like the Council on Child Abuse and NECCO on the same issues that are being raised on the A Thin Line site. It is clear that we have a crisis building in our country as evidenced by teens who fall prey to online bullies and end up taking their own lives. I think that the site does a nice job of raising awareness and making teens truly think about their actions by spelling out potential consequences in language they can understand.

The content is great, the question will be whether kids will go to the site and then take action to make a difference. There truly seems to be an invisible line between private and public behavior and this blur will continue to cause major issues surrounding reputation management for teens. The media certainly doesn’t help. Some of the reality t.v. shows, including those on sponsoring company MTV, help in blurring the line of what is acceptable public behavior. And we adults wonder why kids are sexting…

It does make you think. Picture a world about a generation down the line. A world where Facebook, Twitter, and their analogues/successors have ensured that there is the easily available dirt on everyone. I wonder what kind of society we would end up with if it became impossible to hide one’s inevitable missteps. Would we become more understanding or more critical of our fellows? It would make the political process interesting, that’s for sure.

One thing I can say for certain is that there is no road map for dealing with this. Nothing like social media has ever impacted human society. The closest analogy I can think of is the advent of movable type, and even that is orders of magnitude smaller in overall impact (at least in my own opinion). As mobile phones rapidly approach our desktop computers in complexity, and exceed them in elegance, the pervasive reach of social media saturates the modern environment. Being representative of the population at large that means both a lot of good and a lot of bad.

So, what are your thoughts on the subject? What is the proper response to this sort of digital intimidation? What do you see the current situation evolving into? Let us know in the comments!

Source: “How a College Kid Livestreamed His Roommate’s Gay Sexual Encounter, Possibly Causing a Suicide (Updated),” Gawker, 09/25/10
Source: “Assistant attorney general blogs against gay student body president,” CNN, 09/29/10
Source: “Over the Line? MTV Launches Online ‘Morality Meter’,” ABC News/Technology, 03/15/10
Source: “Press Release – MTV Asks Youth To Draw Line Between Innocent & Inappropriate With New ‘Over The Line?'” Application,” MTV, 03/10
Image of A Thin Line Logo, used under Fair Use/Reporting.

About George Williams

George "Loki" Williams is the community and brand manager for award wining game company Savage Mojo, Ltd. and the owner of SocialGumbo, LLC, an online consultancy specializing in Web content and online communications. Loki has produced content for clients including the Open Society Institute, National Association of Broadcasters, Kobold Press, and Kaiser Permanente. His work has been seen or written about in The New York Times, The BBC, Air America, The Gambit Weekly, and NOLA.com, among others.


Leave a Comment


  1. I personally don’t know if there will ever be a solution or an end to bullying — online or off. If adults can’t always treat each other with dignity and respect, I don’t see how we can expect children to. How can gay teenagers expect NOT to be teased or treated as outcasts when there are lobbyists, “family” advocacy groups, religious leaders, politicians — yes, even rapper 50 Cent on Twitter — spreading the message that homosexuality is wrong, unhealthy or worse?

    The most disturbing part is that now, with digital bullying, there simply isn’t a break for kids who are getting teased or harassed. It’s not enough to get home from school to avoid bullying, because it’s on your phone and computer too.

    I’ve been watching Anderson Cooper on this issue all week. Thanks for bringing such an important topic to the blog, Loki.

  2. “I think there is a lot to be said for the idea of crowdsourcing ideas and solutions from the affected kids themselves.”

    We agree, and that’s why the End the Bullying initiative is asking for such stories, telling about the bullying and, where possible, any way in which it was resolved. We’re hearing from adults who are survivors of bullying, but we’d also like to here from people who are in the midst of it now. Our goal is support and advocacy for bullied children/teens and their families, and one way to provide support is to let others know they’re not alone.

  3. Jason says:

    Thanks for the thoughtful post, George. I appreciate you spotlighting our efforts and the “Over the Line?” app. Since launching A Thin Line last December, we’ve already seen over half a million young people take action as a result of the campaign. We’re the #1 referrer of traffic to the National Teen Dating Abuse Helpline, there have been 250,000 ratings on overtheline.org and there’s a rich conversation unfolding daily on the campaign’s Facebook and Twitter pages. This is just the beginning though. We’re making a long term and sustained commitment to help young people draw their own line between digital use and digital abuse. As you point out, no generation has grown up this way before — but every generation from now on will. We need all hands on deck to help forge a digital code of ethics and empower America’s youth to make good decisions about their “digital health.”

    All my best,

  4. Thanks a lot for the thoughtful comments folks! Jason, thanks for sharing that data with us. As a pro blogger I am very much behind the approach, by actually having the kids be part of the process the possibility of something productive coming out of it increases exponentially. Any other approach would have a certain percentage ignoring whatever is developed because they feel they are being dictated to.

    Socially driven efforts like End Bullying Now and Over The Line seem to me (again I stress I am not a parent) to have the best chance of overall success.

    I also believe that David has a point when he refers to the general lack of respect most adults display as being deleterious role models.

    Thanks a lot for joining the conversation!

  5. I think End Bullying Now and other orgs/programs, including MTV’s over the line site are critical. We need to move from hearing these news stories to raising awareness of the problem. From there we need to educate on how to eliminate this problem. It’s not easy and it won’t happen overnight. I think it will be critical to get folks involved in these programs that can make sure the content doesn’t come off like Nancy Reagan’s “Just Say No” campaign.

    Great post, thanks George.

  6. Sam says:

    Good column, Loki. Please forgive the lengthy response.

    This is a really miserable situation to watch. That having been said, this hasn’t happened in a vacuum.

    Many, many AOL 2.0 yrs ago, I ran chat rooms for AOL. They were topic driven. The “host” would put out a topic, everyone who frequented that particular content site (AOL paid for content providers at that time, albeit not much, but paid based on how many folks showed up and most importantly, how many stayed since AOL was billable by hour of use at that time.) I saw the beginnings of this bullying in those rooms. There were two or three people who could be counted on to single another person out and go after them with blood dripping fangs. In fact, when I interviewed prospective hosts for those room, I would start out with general chit chat, then launch into a string of profanity, racist statements, generally unacceptable or uncivilized torrents and I would just slam it in there til the screen of the interviewee’s computer would be one atrocious tirade scrolling faster than they could respond.

    I did this, then stopped, saying, “That is exactly how badly and how fast a room can get away from you, so you always have to be ready to respond and quickly.” They had to learn to “smile from the wrists down,” be firm if necessary or find a way to defuse it. They were also given training in what at that time were called gag tools. Put in a code and the bully could keep typing his/her crap but it wouldn’t show up in the room. Sometimes it was funny because it took some of them a while to figure out they’d been “gagged.” As a host I could still see what they were putting into the room, but the room couldn’t and eventually you’d see them sputtering with anger that they were getting no response to thier incendariary comments.

    What I really learned, though, was that there are tons of folks out there who apparently feel impotent in their real lives, so adopt on online persona that’s obnoxious. One reason I’m writing this to you off list, is that one of those people was my first son in law. He would threaten all kinds of stuff, including physical harm, online, with a screen and usually hundreds of miles between him and the other guy’s fist. When you met him in real life, he was odd, but nothing at all like the venomously vicious pitbull you saw online. In fact, if you recall during the health care town hall debates, there was a story about a guy who was tweeting that everyone should take their guns to these rallys. The FBI showed up at the house. It was the son in law who was tweeting that shit.

    Another perfect example of this behavior is the dreaded nola.com comments section.

    I think what we’re seeing now, though, is different in a huge way. First we’re talking about kids. Kids who are in no way equipped emotionally to deal with some of this stuff. Secondly, you nailed it, the utter pervasiveness of social media and gadgets. You know me well enough to know that I use technology, however, I still view cell phones as electronic leashes. I find it rude for people to assume that I should be on 24/7 call, that all messages should be retrieved and answered within 20 minutes. I just think it’s presumptious often. It started with call waiting: it was assumed that you would rudely (IMO) cut off the person you were conversing with because the other call was so much more important to you than the person you were currently talking to. I mean really, barring “hey, honey, I’m going into labor,” “Mr. Jones, your son fell off the slide on the playground,” or “I’m in the ER,” what could really be that all fired important? Call waiting put us into a position where over time, we decided that regular manners didn’t apply to technology and that it was okay to make a friend or a mom feel less important than the call that was incessantly beeping on the line. It’s such a tiny thing, but it changed social dynamics. Years past there was a freaking busy signal. We all said, oh, guess I’ll try later and went on our way.

    Now we have 12 year old kids who are super tech savvy, they’ve never seen a tv without a remote and wonder how we neanderthals ever managed with having to get up and cross the room to change the channel. They will watch old movies and be stunned at Claudia Colbert standing in the hall of a rooming house talking on the phone on the wall that was communal, and having to wait as her call was placed to wherever by an operator! They’ll have no idea what a phone booth is, or that tv was something you had one of, not six, and you didn’t get to watch it til your homework and chores were done. There was a definite separation of life and technology. Technology was useful and even entertaining, but life was what was important cuz, hey, you were living it. For these kids technology IS life, and social media has broken down all separation between public and private behavior. Little boys used to giggle about fart jokes in their tree houses, now they do it online, instantaneously connected to whomever they choose, regardless of whether all the parties involved want the connection. It’s assumed that they can txt bff grrlz 2 rpt that OMG Sandi barfed in biol b4 MizW got to rm!!! all with a photo or video of the hapless Sandi sent to a group in a quickly viral blast. They shoot video before they get paper towels or ask if she’s okay.

    I don’t think this is technology’s fault, or even the kids’ faults. It’s grownups’ faults for not teaching the kids that technology is an adjunct to life, not life itself. For not teaching the kids basic civility, sensitivity and manners. For not paying attention to bullying (think Columbine) whether it’s cyber or in the locker room. And for giving kids unlimited, unsupervised access to this technology. Providers don’t help with the push to get kids as customers at younger and younger ages (Verizon I think, could be wrong, might be TMobile, now is pushing kids are free if you add a line to a family package.)

    At least back in the day if you punched someone in the mouth, you had to actually see the blood. If someone wrote “for a good time, call Fran 235-4890” on the bathroom wall, you might have had to see Fran’s humiliation and tears. Fran might have even had some bff’s in the flesh to hug her and tell her not to worry, because it HAD to be that bitch Cathy who wrote it and you KNOW she’s just. . . . . .Whatever, it was actual physical interaction, no little scrolly screen substituting for that.

    This has been coming for a long time, no one thought too much about the consequences. Now that the consequences are being dragged out of the Hudson River and placed in a coffin, everyone is up in arms, and they should be. They should not, however, be surprised. The mean spirited cowards hiding behind screens have been there for a long time now. Unfortunately our kids are unprepared and unequipped to deal with them. And that’s on us.

  7. Hey Sam, thanks for changing your mind and adding this to our comments. Personal narrative always adds dimension to the issues, as we NOLA Bloggers are well aware.