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Education

That Girl in the Pink Dress can't dance, but she can fight cyberbullying

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, May 4, 2011 - Fourteen-year-old Benni Cinkle can't dance -- and after her four-second cameo appearance in friend Rebecca Black's music video "Friday," thousands of people took it upon themselves to tell her so.

As Cinkle says in her EBook, "That Girl in Pink's Internet Survival Guide: For Kids Who Live Their Lives Online (and the Moms and Dads Who Love Them!)," the southern California teens bobbed along to lyrics such as "Yesterday was Thursday (Thursday), today it is Friday (Friday), we, we, we so excited, we so excited," without suspecting that they would hear them repeated again in the onslaught of responses both on and offline. But six weeks and 121 million views later, spoofs, satires and lamentations on the state of modern pop abound -- everyone from the writers at Rolling Stone magazine to Stephen Colbert took a swipe at "Friday," with varying degrees of disdain.

It would have been funny, Cinkle admits, if the girls had not also found themselves targeted by "some pretty mean behavior." Personal attacks, ranging from condescending to cruel, piled up on YouTube and in the blogosphere. People posted such comments as: "I hope you'll get an eating disorder so you'll be pretty." Rebecca Black said she received death threats. Cinkle was singled out as "That Girl in the Pink Dress," verbally attacked by thousands of strangers across the world for her awkward dance.

Lt. Joe Laramie, an administrator with the Missouri attorney general's internet crimes against children lab, calls this a case of cyberbullying: with anonymous perpetrators; fast, constant, pervasive attacks; and a new, little-understood technological platform.

It is also, Laramie says, an example of a case handled well: Cinkle and her family took an active approach, logging into YouTube and responding to the comments, making it a point to thank those who wrote in support. With encouragement from commenters complimenting her "maturity" and "humor," she recorded videos answering questions about the experience, bought the domain name ThatGirlInPink.com, and even hosted a flash-mob performance of "The Benni" dance to raise money for Japan. Her Facebook page has nearly 100,000 "likes" and her new Tumblr has more than 40,000 followers. The EBook reads as a guidebook on how to maintain self-esteem in the face of cyberbullying.

"At the very least, maybe you'll feel less alone just knowing that some other kid out there, someone who's probably a lot like you, has experienced the same kinds of things, and found a way to deal with them," she wrote.

According to surveys from the Cyberbullying Research Center, many kids have experienced those same "kinds of things." Even the lowest estimates suggest that one in five teens has been the target of "willful and repeated harm inflicted through the use of computers, cell phones, and other electronic devices."

Cyberbullying, otherwise known as "electronic bullying," "e-bullying," "SMS bullying," "mobile bullying," "online bullying," "digital bullying," and "Internet bullying," has become a hot-button issue for parents, educators, activists, law enforcement, legislators and youth adjusting to both the challenges and opportunities of "life online." Terms such as "sexting" have entered the national lexicon, and anti-bullying advocates ranging from the Obamas to MTV to the St. Louis Junior League collect accounts of cyber violence, posting them on websites, presenting them at assemblies and mailing them in petition packets to legislators.

Yet, in a presentation in early April at the St. Louis Jewish Family and Children's Services, anti-bullying activist Tina Meier said high school students still send friends "secrets" via instant message, only to find out later that those "friends" have copied and pasted their conversation to their entire buddy lists. People comment anonymously on blog posts, they hack into YouTube accounts, and post embarrassing, electronically manipulated pictures on Facebook visible to anyone who cares to look. They sign into Xbox 360, log onto the interactive game network and virtually gang up on fellow players, mocking anything and everything from their video game prowess, to their appearance, to their sexual orientation. On a Friday, someone can post a rumor that will spread to an entire school by Monday.

"The greatest risk to our kids, in numbers, is another kid. Not most at risk, but most times at risk," Laramie says.

Meier emerged as a national spokesperson after her 13-year-old daughter Megan committed suicide following repeated harassment on MySpace in 2008. Tina Meier says more tragic stories of cyberviolence have attracted public attention in the years since. But even as activists, psychologists and educators consider the dangers of "living online," teens use technology at higher and higher rates, outpacing their counterparts of even four years ago -- and according to Cherisse Thibaut, at Missouri KidsFirst, the "digital world" is not going anywhere.

"It's the way youth are communicating and expressing themselves, it's the place where they go to socialize, to feel accepted by their friends, to feel like they're part of something. They can have that anxiety with them that every text is going to be a hurtful text. They can be fearful that anytime they go on a Facebook page, somebody will have posted an embarrassing picture," Thibaut said. "But it's their connection to their social world."

Ariana Tobin, a student at Washington University, is an intern the Beacon. 

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