By Justin W. Patchin of the Cyberbullying Research Center
I just previewed the producer’s cut of a new film on the topic of cyberbullying. Admittedly, I was skeptical at first, because I have seen these kinds of productions before and have either been underwhelmed or downright angry at the way the problem was portrayed. But this effort was different and I think has the potential to do some good.
“Submit: The Documentary” presents the perspectives of many who have experienced the problem of cyberbullying from a variety of viewpoints, including victims and parents, but also educators, researchers, legislators, and policymakers. I was glad to see many familiar cyberbullying prevention and education colleagues prominently featured throughout the film, including my friend and Cyberbullying Research Center co-director Sameer Hinduja. Together, they present a clear view of the nature of the cyberbullying problem, and offer their insights about why we need to focus more attention on it.
“Submit” includes the requisite stories of those who have been affected most deeply by cyberbullying. Tina Meier, Donna Witsell, John Lowe, and others who lost their children as a result of, at least in part, experience with cyberbullying remind viewers that these behaviors cannot simply be ignored. Their experiences, while thankfully not representative, are instructive. We can learn a lot from what happened to Megan, Hope, and Johanna, and shame on us if we don’t do things better the next time.
As much as it was important to revisit these tragic stories, and even though it was a nice change to see and hear from some of “the experts” who have devoted their careers to this problem, the indisputable stars of this film were the students. They illuminate a reality of cyberbullying that has largely escaped mainstream media. They talk about why they do what they do, and perhaps even more enlightening, why they don’t do what they don’t do. The teens pointedly acknowledge the challenges of dealing with cyberbullying and related behaviors–most of which stem from a general distrust of adults to do anything meaningful to curb the bullying. Indeed, most young people we speak with say the number one reason they don’t confide in adults when confronted with cyberbullying is because they fear it will only make matters worse. Mike Donlin re-affirms this perspective in his remarks that were featured in the film.
As a film intended to capture broad public interest, “Submit” walks a fine-line between presenting a narrative of cyberbullying that is accurate and one that is shocking, fear-mongering, or otherwise “entertaining.” To be a commercial success, especially in the documentary genre, it seems that a film needs to be portentous, provocative, or overly alarmist. Compared to other films that tackle this subject, “Submit” does a better job balancing the hype with the lived-reality of teens in the 21st Century. For example, “Bully,” the 2011 documentary that followed the experiences of five youth and their families, focused so much on the extremity of the problem that while I was left physically hurting for the families featured I was no better prepared to do anything about it. “Bully” left me with the impression that adults are impotent when it comes to stopping bullying because most of the adults included in that film failed in their efforts, or worse, didn’t try.
To some extent, “Submit” begins to lead viewers down a path toward a similar conclusion: that schools, parents, the police, and other adult institutions are incapable at preventing or stopping cyberbullying. But “Submit” doesn’t stop there and carries the discussion forward, presenting some of the emerging evidence about what does work to stop bullying. Among the promising approaches highlighted is to cultivate empathy among students. Not only will empathetic students refrain from bullying others online and off, but they will also stand up for those who are being targeted. By encouraging young people and empowering bystanders to take action, we have a better chance at making strides to reduce this problem. As Sameer states in the film: “Bystanders can be heroes.” We genuinely believe that. Teens see a lot more of what is going on than most adults and they are, as a result, often in the best position to do something about it.
But they shouldn’t have to do it alone, any more than schools should have to respond to bullying by themselves. Bullying, no matter the form, is a community problem which demands a community response. Educators, parents, police officers, faith leaders, community partners, researchers, technology companies, and yes, teens, have the power *together* to adequately prevent and respond to this problem. “Submit” is a solid reminder and all who care about the online lives of adolescents are encouraged to check it out. Trailer here.