By Taryn Graham and Anissa Grundy
Provoked by social media, two teenage girls in Memphis decided to take their ongoing feud over a stolen cellular phone to an evening meetup at Zodiac Park.
But the meetup on Nov. 2 went wrong. Six shooters, with their faces covered by bandannas, opened fire on the group. Neighbors reported hearing at least 17 gunshots, and when the gun fire stopped, 16-year-old Alana Tello was dead. Five other young people were injured.
Unfortunately, such scenarios incited by social media happen too often, both in Memphis and across the county.
Ten years ago, young people used cyberbullying to poke fun at peers and classmates. Today, teenagers use cyberbullying to incite hate crimes and school violence. In Memphis, at least two brawls at local malls started online via social media, according to police who are working with community and social officials to stop the trend.
So what exactly is cyberbullying? Dr. Justin Patchin of the Cyberbullying Research Center explains the practice like this: “Cyber bullying is defined as willful and repeated harm inflicted through the use of computers, cellphones and other electronic devices.”
The Cyber Bullying Research Center started studying cyber bullying in 2001. Since then, behaviors have remained similar, but the environment has changed, Patchin said.
“If there is a popular place online, cyber bullying is likely happening there,” he explained.
Cyber bullying is this new generation’s way of being malicious and violent to peers, enemies and even friends.
In 2012-2014, 7 percent of students from grades six through 12 have experienced cyber bullying back. However, in 2015, an estimated 16 percent of high schoolers were bullied electronically, according to reports by stopbullying.gov.
In Memphis, disturbances — some violent — illustrate the disturbing trend. On Dec. 23, groups of teenagers convened at the Wolfchase and Oak Court malls following posts on Facebook and Instagram encouraging people to meet at the malls and start fights with whomever they had a problem with. Chaos and confusion for customers and mall employees followed the postings.
Increasingly, violence in both commercial areas and high schools is being fueled through the misuse of social media.
Elyse Jones, social worker at Freedom Preparatory Academy Charter School in Memphis, has noticed the misuse of social media taking place in her very own hallways.
“Although students aren’t allowed to utilize social media while at school, it is evident that the majority of students engage in social media often,” Jones said. “Many incidents that have occurred at school can be traced back to social media.”
Social media outlets have become so popular that young people no longer ask for phone numbers as a way to communicate. Instead, they trade Snapchat, Instagram and KIK names to talk to one another. As long as teens have access to a Wi-Fi connection, they can still communicate with peers without cell phone service.
“For our baby boomer parents and grandparents who are guardians of this GenerationZ, aka iGeneration, they are usually highly confused when they get a call from us informing them that their son/daughter is involved in a conflict that originated on social media,” Jones said.
“One student had his parents fully convinced that he was being framed for a potential harassment incident because the parents confiscated his phone, completely unaware that he had full access to social media via his tablet,” Jones said.
Cellphones aren’t permitted for use during school hours at schools such as American Way Middle where seventh grade English and Language Arts teacher Kenya Bond works. However, she often hears students recap things they’ve seen and heard on social media the night before.
“We have had to defuse a few fights which were due to harassment on social media,” said Bond.
Some teachers try to build that trusting bond with students so students feel comfortable enough to tell them about an incident before it takes place at school.
Another educator, Merlene Love from Lake Cormorant High, has also witnessed violence in the school that started online and made it was to the hallways the following week.
“A young man was apparently dating two young ladies, one more than the other and the two young ladies were having a dispute via the media. The weekend went by and the drama was brought to the school where a fight broke out,” Love said.
To decrease the problem of violence on school grounds, Cormorant High is developing a discipline plan so that these types of unacceptable behaviors don’t reach its campus. But controlling social media can be very difficult because students can’t be monitored all day long. Even when misuses are reported, perpetrators can create a new profile under false names.
“Better education about the responsible use of social media can help,” said Carrie Brown, director of a social media program at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism in New York.
“Teaching kids strong social media literacy skills can be really helpful so that people start to understand why other people bully, what the coping mechanisms may be and how to ignore it,” Brown said.
Trying to prevent people from using social media is difficult because social media is such an integral way to communicate, both personally and professionally.
“Having conversations with parents or teachers and using social media itself could be useful tools to bring cyber bullying to the forefront,” Brown said.
“It all starts at home with the parents,” said Memphis Police officer John Hawkins. “If parents would catch these social media violence before it escalates, we wouldn’t have to deal with it. It’s parents, community and then the police. If the community took care of the community they wouldn’t need police. We can’t parent the children because they’re not our children.”
Local law enforcement can only do so much to keep young people from initiating violence and hate via social media.
“I can’t raise your children,” said former Memphis Police Director Toney Armstrong. “Parents need to own up and take responsibility for raising their own kids because the police department can’t do it.”