Chicago Town Hall Stresses Safety in the Online World

October 26, 2011
Audrey Stokes Product Manager, Education
Common Sense Media
San Francisco, United States

In this guest article, Mark Hallett, Journalism Program Sr. Program Officer, McCormick Foundation recaps the town hall hosted by Common Sense, Yahoo! Safely, and MTV’s A Thin Line on October 18, 2011. The archived town hall can be viewed here.

With more than 700 million users worldwide, Facebook has emerged as the single largest online teen forum. With that comes all of the richness of teen life—the bonding, sharing, and exploring – but also the gossip, flirting and drama.

And yes, the bullying too.

In a crowded auditorium in Chicago’s Field Museum on Oct. 18, a forum presented by Common Sense Media (a San Francisco-based nonprofit that helps kids and families navigate the world of media and technology), Yahoo! Safely, and MTV’s A Thin Line explored not only what damage is done by cyberbullying but also what teens, teachers and parents can do in response.

Sponsored by the MacArthur and McCormick Foundations, and supported by Chicago Public Schools, SCE and Beyondmedia Education, the “Stand Up to Cyberbullying” town hall engaged a live audience of more than 400 Chicago teens. More than 3,500 others followed the live stream. Youth represented Free Spirit Media, Boys and Girls Clubs, the communities of Englewood and Pilsen, and the Southwest Youth Collaborative.

The audience viewed a short clip of “Your Social Life”, a video documentary on the topic of cyberbullying created by Beyondmedia Education, a Chicago nonprofit that works with under-represented women, youth and communities to tell their stories. Clip of “Your Social Life” can be viewed here.

Moderated by MTV News correspondent SuChin Pak, the panel included:

  • John E. Connolly – Education Technology Director, Chicago Public Schools
  • Mike Hawkins – YouMedia Coordinator/Lead Mentor
  • Rosalind Moore – parent
  • Tiffany Witkowski – Senior, Von Steuben High School
  • Montel Williams – recent graduate of North Lawndale College Prep High School

Hands across the crowd of 400 shot up when SuChin Pak began by asking how many teens present use Facebook. And asked how many were personally aware of cyberbullying incidents, a surprising 1/3 or so went up.

Tiffany Witkowski was asked what she learned in the process of working on the documentary “Your Social Life.” She responded that the biggest surprise what that the phenomenon known as ‘sexting’ is considered cyberbullying and can actually have legal consequences. “If you’re under the age of 18 and you send these photos, forward them, even just have them in your cell phone, you can be put on a sex offender’s list, can’t go to certain schools, can’t live in certain communities… I was shocked.”

Mike Hawkins, a lead mentor at Chicago’s innovative YouMedia space (an innovative teen learning space at Chicago’s Harold Washington Library), explained that part of the problem is that youth enter the digital world with no guidance. “Kids aren’t taught the critical aspects of media – what it is, how to navigate it. They’re left to their own accord.”

The panel included a mother of two teenagers, Rosalind Moore, who is also a program manager for Teamwork Englewood, a nonprofit organization. When asked what rules she enforces around social media use at home, she explained that when her kids were younger, there was simply a time limit. No computer before homework.

“But as they got older,’ she explained, ‘the rules lessened. Lots of parents want their children’s passwords. I never did that. We just had an agreement that they’d come to me if things got out of hand.”

Both of her children personally experienced incidences of cyberbullying – her daughter when her Facebook account was hacked by an ex-boyfriend, and her son when classmates took photos meant to mock him on a class trip and posted them online.

When asked if she is currently Facebook friends with her children, Ms. Moore responded (to the laughter of the audience) that she is not – but is friends with all of their friends.

As head of Education Technology for the Chicago Public Schools, panelist John Connolly has a unique perspective on the issue. Asked how he’s working with schools and teachers around cyberbullying in the country’s third largest school system, Connolly said that CPS is rolling out a curriculum in partnership with Common Sense Media.

“Four or five years ago,’ he explained, ‘the concept was ‘Let’s block this site.’ Now it’s moving toward ‘Let’s leverage these sites and educate our kids through curriculum in a controlled environment, to show them how to leverage the technology in a responsible way.’”

In that time, a lot has changed. This point was driven home when Pak asked Montel Williams, a recent high school graduate, how social media is different today than when he started in high school. Williams explained that at that time, he had an email account, but no Facebook page, and he wasn’t texting either.

But while most teens choose to be engaged in Facebook and other social media, some are opting out altogether. Witkowski said that she no longer has a Facebook page. “I found it pointless. I was getting mildly harassed on Facebook. That was my solution for getting rid of the cyberbullying. It’s perplexing to me that everyone is so fascinated with what everyone else is doing.”

Pak asked the panelists how online and face-to-face bullying relate to one another.

Williams explained that it can be easier to deal with in-person bullying. Many of today’s bullies hide behind the anonymity of the web.

“It’s almost cool to be mean today,’ Witkowski responded. “It’s so easy to bully online.  Today’s fist fights often start online.”

How do we start to figure out ways to build more positive communities online?

“It starts at home,” Witkowski explained. “But if you can’t talk with a parent about it, you can talk with a teacher who knows you, knows the kind of work you produce, knows when you’re having an off day.” Ideally, there would be safe communities online where teachers could help resolve problems early on.

Such alternative online spaces exist, Hawkins said. At YouMedia and at the Hive Chicago (a network of museums, libraries and other groups creating youth-oriented digital learning spaces), students can maintain their Facebook page but also participate in alternative networks. “You can be mentored and understand you’re here to create, share and collaborate. These are safe spaces where you can engage and learn and share with your peers.”

When asked how schools respond to cases of cyberbullying, Connolly explained: “We encourage students, when bullied, to let parents and teachers know. When teachers see this occurring, we encourage them to work with the two students.”

At the same time though, let’s remember not to be too tough on the bullies, Moore stressed. “Hurt people hurt people. The person bullying is also affected. People who are happy and engaged and have full lives don’t think about ways to hurt someone. So we need to think – as teachers, friends and mentors – that the person hurting others is also hurting.”

It’s important that adults pay attention to this area – both the richness of it as well as the pitfalls and dangers. As Connie Yowell, director of education at the MacArthur Foundation put it in her introductory comments: “It’s a different day with digital media. These are incredibly powerful learning tools. You don’t want to say ‘turn it off.’ They’re tools for participation. So we want to say to parents: Participate. Be in there with your kids.”

To see the entire town hall, click here:


McCormick Foundation Journalism Program grantees mentioned in this article:

Beyondmedia Education (

Common Sense Media (

Free Spirit Media (