Editor's note: Our sister paper in Palo Alto, the Palo Alto Weekly, published this story. The entire in-depth package on cyberbullying has been posted here.
Many adults are puzzled by the mean comments and offensive material most teens consider normal on social media, given that the behavior flies in the face of what youth are taught in school from an early age about kindness, respect and inclusiveness.
Most kids act in ways that are caring and respectful in class and at home, adults report.
These are good kids, they say.
It may be a matter of different norms in different environments.
"Teens know how to put their best foot forward in front of an adult, especially at school," a Palo Alto High School senior said.
"I truly believe these students have a knowing about what is correct behavior, what is compassion, what is empathy. I just think they don't quite understand how to connect this in all segments of their life, especially with their (online) language," Palo Alto Recreation Department Teen Services Coordinator Jessica Lewis said. "It's all about being conscious and intentional."
How to bring about more conscious intention and alignment of values is unclear. Teens generally roll their eyes about bullying-prevention and social-kindness programs.
"We are hit over the head with anti-bullying programs" that are "preachy" and "irrelevant," one teen said. Messages like "Be an upstander" and "Report hurtful behavior to a trusted adult" may make sense to adults, but that's just not how it works online, many teens say.
Several teens also pointed out that lessons promoting social kindness do nothing to advance their goal of getting into a good college. Without that ultimate reward, many do not have the motivation, or bandwidth, to devote attention to such non-academic subjects.
"Adults take it seriously; kids don't," one Paly sophomore said.
"Schools are overestimating their reach (with anti-bullying programs)," a recent Paly grad said. "They have more limited effect than wished for."
This resistance to adult messaging is consistent with what experts observe about natural teen development.
"The window of opportunity for adults to influence an early adolescent's social behavior usually closes by the end of middle school," according to psychologist and author Carl Pickhardt. "It is in late elementary school and particularly middle school when parents and teachers have an opportunity to impact those norms of social treatment."
The late elementary age is a prime target zone for the work of Palo Alto business My Digital Tat2, according to founders Gloria Moskowitz-Sweet and Erica Pelavin. Starting last year, with funding from the nonprofit Partners in Education, they have been educating Palo Alto fifth-graders and their parents about kindness and respect online.
"We are thrilled to send a cohort of kids into sixth grade with a common language and some practice in standing up and spreading kindness," Pelavin told the Weekly.
Their goal is "to help students become safe, ethical, responsible, and kind producers and consumers of technology." They believe that concepts like "frontloading kindness in a digital age" and "standing up to social cruelty online and off" can be grown and spread as positive messages that will empower youth.
My Digital Tat2's program reinforces the Palo Alto school librarians' districtwide curriculum teaching cybercitizenship starting in second grade. It also sets the stage for ongoing cybercitizenship and anti-bullying lessons that take place throughout middle and high school.
Pelavin and Moskowitz-Sweet are optimistic about a growing trend of "remarkable positive initiatives" among youth responding to online cruelty.
"We do see kids standing up on Instagram, Ask.fm and Facebook. They are stepping out and up when they see unkind threads, thus decreasing the power of the post or image. From our experience kids are slowing down and care very deeply about their online identity," Pelavin said.
A February editorial in Paly's student magazine, Verde, entitled "Online Shaming Needs to Stop" aims to feed this trend by urging students to report a problem post on Facebook, or to directly confront the poster "even if the bullying incident does not involve you or your friends."
Pelavin also references a growing number of national websites that emphasize kindness and empathy (including Do Something, Trevor Project, Everyone Matters and Start Empathy).