Camryn Cowdin was checking her Facebook page when she saw hateful posts from a person she considered a friend. Her name was never used, but she knew the words were about her.
“He would directly reference a comment or situation that happened between him and I,” Cowdin, 16, said. He threatened to end their friendship. He’d say, `You’re dead to us.’ ”
The comments left her feeling depressed, Cowdin said. She cried every night. She didn’t want to go to school.
“He pretty much tried to ruin me,” said Cowdin, a student at Highlands Ranch High School who loves making costumes for Comic Con, journaling and music — a set of headphones often hang around her neck. “I know a lot of beautiful people who have been ruined by social media.”
Cowdin’s experience of being bullied over a social media platform is part of an increasing national trend in cyberbullying.
In a study conducted by the Cyberbullying Research Center, the number of students nationally who reported experiencing cyberbullying nearly doubled from 18.8 percent in 2007 to 33.8 percent in 2016. The report surveyed more than 20,000 middle and high school students across the country from 2002 to 2016.
A 2015 study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that 15.5 percent of high school students at public and private schools across the U.S. were cyberbullied. In middle schools, 24 percent of students experienced cyberbullying.
Defined as using technology to harass another person, cyberbullying takes many forms: sending a mean text message, posting hurtful comments on social media, spreading inappropriate or embarrassing photos of someone over social media, spreading rumors online.
Whereas bullying occurs in person, cyberbullying allows for anonymity and secrecy.
On apps like Snapchat, messages and photos disappear after a certain amount of time. The Whisper app is used to anonymously post confessions and secrets. On Ask.fm, users anonymously ask and answer questions. Other social media platforms popular among young people include Instagram, a photo-sharing app, and Kik, an app used to instant message friends or strangers.
“Cyberbullying takes it that next step where the chances of the teacher or parent being aware are very low,” said Emily Laux, a pediatric psychologist at Children’s Hospital Colorado. “That’s a concern because we aren’t able to help kids manage it. It’s so much harder for parents and adults to intervene.”
Online bullying can cause lasting damage to teenagers, research shows, resulting in mental health issues such as depression and anxiety, sleep problems, difficulty adjusting to school or, in some extreme instances, suicide.
For some educators, the impact is overwhelming.
“At different times of the day, we would have students come down extremely upset and distraught, broken friendships, things that were said about them, rumors being passed around, name-calling,” said Ann Guenther, assistant principal of Rocky Heights Middle School in Highlands Ranch, which at the beginning of the school year implemented a cellphone ban to counter distractions in the classroom. “When you have students focusing on those pieces, they can’t focus on school.”
Delanie Vieira, a freshman at Rock Canyon High School, was in eighth grade when two girls and a boy started messaging her on the photo-sharing site Instagram. They told her to kill herself, she said.
But Vieira, who has a solid friend group and is self-confident about who she is, didn’t let the words get her down. Instead, she went to the principal.
“I was hurt that they would target me when I felt like I did nothing wrong,” said Vieira. “It shocked me.”
Vieira used to worry about what other people thought about her on social media, she said, but now she has a different outlook.
“At this point, I don’t really care, I’m just sharing photos of my friends. I’m just growing up,” Vieira said. “It’s for my own entertainment and enjoyment. It only matters if my close friends care.”
But for some young people, cyberbullying has had devastating consequences.
In 2015, Colorado passed Kiana’s Law, named after Kiana Arellano, a 14-year-old from Highlands Ranch who in 2013, after receiving hateful messages from classmates online, attempted suicide. She survived, but the lack of oxygen left her a paraplegic and unable to speak. Her mother testified before the Legislature to increase the penalties for cyberbullying. As a result, the act is considered a misdemeanor crime that warrants up to one year in county jail, a fine of up to $1,000 or both.
For the past two years, Sgt. Lori Bronner of the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office has overseen the school resource officer program at Douglas County schools. A resource officer is a deputy who is responsible for student safety on a school campus and also is trained in mental health first aid.
She blames the impersonal aspect of social media platforms for allowing students to say things they otherwise wouldn’t.
“Kids say really mean and hateful things over social media,” she said. “Social media has made it easier because you are not face-to-face. You’re not there to take the brunt if someone wants to say something back to you.”
Students need to know they can report harmful content they see on social media to a teacher or adult, said members of Douglas County School District’s Prevention and School Culture team. Its seven members teach seminars on positive life skills, such as healthy boundaries and substance abuse prevention to students throughout the district.
“Kids feel like they always have to comment or like something,” said Cindy Redfern, a former elementary school teacher on the team. "They can say ‘no.’ If your friend is doing something that you don’t think is OK, you report it.”
Families should have open communication about what is happening on social media and, if needed, parents should intervene, said Anne Metz, also a team member who formerly worked as a registered nurse.
“It’s important for parents to understand that they have the right to be in charge of the cellphone that they are giving to their kid,” she said. “It’s important to talk to their kids about what is expected.”
After her negative experiences on Facebook, Cowdin blocked the person who was posting hurtful comments about her and eventually deactivated her account. Now she’s cautious about how much time she spends on social media. She uses Instagram and Facebook, which she has since reactivated, primarily to share her costume creations.
The talkative and easygoing teen says social media causes a lot of unnecessary drama. She’s focusing on school and photography, which is also a passion.
“I’m just focusing on myself, my friends, the good things,” Cowdin said, “and blocking people who treat me badly.”