Four hundred students sit silently in the bleachers, their eyes trained on the screen suspended from the opposite wall of the school’s gymnasium.
On screen, 13-year-old Jonah Mowry of California confesses to being bullied to the brink of suicide, recounting his story by cycling through cue cards as Sia’s “Breathe Me” plays in the background. Mowry’s confession commands the students’ undivided attention, proving how the gay California teen’s Youtube video is as relevant to teen audiences now as it was this time last year when it went viral, dragging bullying into mainstream headlines across North America.
As the music fades and Mowry waves goodbye, Darren Laur, the day’s guest speaker, approaches the bleachers, his voice quavering as he condemns those who push kids like Mowry to contemplate suicide.
Laur, a staff sergeant with the Victoria Police Department and an expert on internet safety, has returned to Ladysmith Secondary School (LSS) for the second time in as many years to inform students and parents of the potential perils of social media and the World Wide Web. Mowry’s video is one of several that Laur uses to connect with his audience, and it marks the emotional peak of his two-hour-long presentation.
Laur quickly regains his composure as he launches into the myriad ways in which cyberbullies can be criminally and civilly charged, pulling no punches in his attempt to enlighten his audience as to the legal consequences of what he prefers to refer to as “digital peer aggression.”
“Calling it cyberbullying trivializes violence,” he informs me later.
Darren and his wife Beth have been in the business of personal safety for nearly 20 years, they tell me. They founded their own company, Personal Protection Systems Inc., in 1993.
Two years ago, they decided to craft a presentation directed towards youth and made their public school premiere here in Ladysmith at LSS.
Their student presentation covers everything from safeguarding mobile phones from malware to cultivating “digital dossiers” — an individual’s presence in the digital world, including their social networking accounts and any associated photos — in a responsible manner.
The take-home point, Darren reminds his audience, is to recognize that our online identities are persistent, searchable, replicable and exposed to an invisible audience.
To put things in context, he follows up with several examples — including Michael Phelps, the most decorated Olympian of all time — of how images posted on social networking sites have come back to haunt people, leading to the loss of scholarships or job opportunities.
But the negative, risky aspects of social media and sexting aren’t the sole focus of their presentation. Darren lauds today’s teens for capitalizing on the web as a means of expressing themselves creatively through music, writing and art. The net also provides teens with a means of reaching out to one another for support, Laur adds, leading to instances where young people have acted as “digital first responders,” calling on emergency services to intervene when they’ve learned that a friend is either contemplating or attempting suicide. The vast majority of teens and young adults, Laur says, are responsible “digital citizens.”
Knowing that much might comfort their “digital immigrant” parents, even if the elder generation is largely unaware of what happens on the web. But for parents who suspect their children have been targeted by bullies, or are bullying other teens themselves, Laur counsels them on how to address these issues at an evening presentation designed specifically for parents.
Following the afternoon presentation, students line up to speak with both Darren and Beth. Some have questions regarding their smart phone settings. Others ask to speak confidentially with either Darren or Beth. One boy expresses his gratitude by sharing a fist pump and a smile with Darren.
By the following morning, more than 300 students have messaged the Laurs via their Facebook account — they use a fake account as a tool to teach teens how easy it is for strangers to anonymously infiltrate and gain access to their personal information — and Beth says they expect hundreds of follow-up messages from LSS students in the weeks to come.
Clearly, the message has hit home.
Samantha Desouza was in Grade 8 when she attended the Laur’s first presentation at LSS two years ago. Desouza, now in tenth grade, referred to the updated presentation as “amazing,” adding that watching it a second time offered her a whole new perspective on the topic.
To report bullying, visit Teens Networking Together or call the RCMP at 250-245-2215.