Cyberbully target becomes an activist as ASU researchers develop app

Jul 15, 2019, 4:25 AM | Updated: 3:52 pm

PHOENIX - After long days of torment at middle school, Grace Martinez would come home, eat dinner and do her chores. But as soon as she was alone, behind her bedroom door, she released her emotional pain.

“I got to the point where I didn’t want to feel the pain they were giving me, so I wanted to feel something physical. That’s when I started cutting myself,” said Martinez, now a senior at Westview High School in Avondale.

She remembers being bullied as far back as kindergarten. It got worse. In seventh grade, the bullying took a hard turn to the internet.

On a social media app called Vine, they called her names. They made fun of her glasses. Her braces. Her weight.

“Instead of it being in person, it was all online so everybody could read it,” Martinez said of the humiliation.

According to a 2018 Pew Research Center survey, 59 percent of teens have been the target of cyberbullying and 42 percent of those teens said that they were called offensive names.

About 60 percent of teens who were cyberbullied think that parents are doing a good job in addressing these issues of harassment online, but the remaining 40 percent feel that parents are not doing enough, the survey shows.

But programs and an app under development might offer solutions for parents and teens.

Martinez kept silent about the cyberbullying around her family and friends. Her parents had no clue.

“She had tons of friends,” said Johnny Martinez, Grace’s father. “Her personality was really outgoing, her grades were excellent. So a lot of those warning signs just never really applied to her.”

Grace Martinez had a close friend who noticed the changes in her behavior, and that she always wore long sleeves. The friend alerted a school counselor. The teamwork between her school faculty and her parents accelerated her healing.

“They got me help. It was huge because it really did turn my life around,” she said.

“Instead of reacting negatively to it, we made an anti-bullying assembly with that teacher, my vice principals, some friends and the Phoenix Police Department. So instead of it making me feel less than who I was, I made it into something positive.”

The technology that spawned cyberbullying might provide another solution.

Arizona State University researchers are giving parents a tool to monitor their child’s social media presence and identify cyberbullying. After creating an app to stop bullies on Facebook, the BullyBlocker team of researchers and students are moving the concept to Instagram.

The ActionPoint app is being designed to help improve parent and teen communication and alert parents to problems.

Researchers say the app is based on a machine-learning model that automatically analyzes words and additional social network information to predict future instances of cyberbullying.

Yasin Silva, an associate professor at ASU, said teens and parents can learn from an app like ActionPoint.

“These apps will engage parents and teenagers,” said Silva, who works in the university’s school of mathematical and natural sciences. They can “learn together about identifying instances of cyberbullying and other types of cyber harassment in these networks.”

Instagram recently added anti-cyberbullying tactics, announced by Adam Mosseri, the head of Instagram.

“We are committed to leading the industry in the fight against online bullying, and we are rethinking the whole experience of Instagram to meet that commitment,” Mosseri said in an Instagram post earlier this week.

The new feature notifies people when their comment may be considered offensive before it’s posted, allowing users to reflect on their harmful comment before pushing “post.”

Another part of the feature protects accounts from unwanted interactions. It allows only the cyberbully and their target to see the harmful comments unless the target approves the comment.

Johnny Martinez says that he likes the concept of an app but advises parents to take other actions to reduce cyberbullying.

“I feel like parents still need to continue to be pretty well involved in and hypervigilant when it comes to the social media that the kids are looking at,” Martinez said.

He recommends that parents talk everyday with their kids to see how they are doing. He believes if had done that consistently with his daughter he would have noticed early warning signs.

Grace Martinez is now a student ambassador for Speak Up, Stand Up, Save a Life, an annual conference in the Phoenix area that spreads awareness about bullying and suicide and educates teens about their online presence.

“I hope you are in a better place,” Martinez says of her former bullies. “Your words don’t matter to me because I am out here growing – I’m out here doing so much about it.”

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Cyberbully target becomes an activist as ASU researchers develop app