When Debbie Heimowitz talks about cyberbullying at school assemblies or presents training events for teachers, she speaks with authority. She knows the statistics. She understands the potential for real harm if bullies use the anonymity of technology to gang up on their victims.
But she doesn't just emphasize scary stories. "I want kids to feel empowered online," she says. "I want them to know that they can learn about technology and use it to do cool things. I want them to see role models, other kids using technology to help their friends. And if cyberbullying is happening, I want them to know that they can go to someone for help."
To get across her dual message of empowerment and awareness, Heimowitz has created an engaging thirty-minute film and supporting resources designed to foster better-informed conversation about cyberbullying. Adina's Deck stars four middle school girls who become cybersleuths to solve an online bullying mystery. They combine the bravado of Nancy Drew with the tech savvy of Silicon Valley veterans as they figure out who is behind a string of anonymous text messages, phone calls, and Web posts that take an increasingly threatening tone.
Heimowitz, who developed Adina's Deck in 2007 while she was a graduate student in education at Stanford University, told me she didn't start with a focus on cyberbullying. Her original idea, she recalls with a laugh, "was a fourth-grade project about the gold rush, a topic I found fascinating!" But conversations with a school counselor and with her mother, a middle school special education teacher, opened her eyes.
Heimowitz was surprised to learn that cyberbullying is a problem at her old middle school and at many other schools. "I thought bullying was only about boys beating up other boys," she admits. But as she dug into the research and did additional surveys at schools serving diverse populations in the Bay Area, she learned that cyberbullying is a growing concern that cuts across genders, age groups, and socioeconomic levels.
An organization called i-SAFE conducted a survey of students in grades 4-8 and found that 42 percent of them have been bullied online and 53 percent have said "something mean or hurtful" to another person online. What's more, most kids keep the experience to themselves; 58 percent of children who have been bullied on the Web victims admit that they did not tell their parents or another adult about the incidents.
Making a film to raise awareness about the issue was an obvious choice for Heimowitz. She studied film as an undergraduate at the University of California of Berkeley and then spent three years working in Hollywood. Her long-term goal is to create films with the production quality of the big-name studios but with an educational message that will engage students and address teachers' learning goals.
To make sure Adina's Deck resonated with her target audience, Heimowitz went straight to the source: middle school girls. Through Citizen Schools, a San Francisco Bay Area after-school program she has volunteered for, Heimowitz recruited a focus group of girls for a ten-week apprenticeship in filmmaking. They acted as script consultants, providing feedback that gave the film the ring of authenticity. They even suggested cool names for the characters -- Skye, Melody, Clara, and Adina -- and helped develop the four personas.
Although cyberbullying affects both boys and girls, Heimowitz deliberately cast girls as the ones with technology smarts. In one scene, the characters start to unravel the mystery by figuring out the IP address of a computer used to build an anonymous Web site, which the cyberbully is using to harass the "popular" girl, Skye. "We had some very tech-savvy people help us to make sure that sequence is completely realistic," Heimowitz explains.
Most teens, she admits, are not quite so conversant with how computers work. Nor are most schools as full of technology as the one on this movie set, where kids move fluidly from a wireless laptop to text messaging on cell phones. The hyped-up technology use is deliberate, Heimowitz says. "We wanted to show an example of girls who can navigate their way around the Internet like any expert in Silicon Valley." (And she is delighted when audiences pick Adina, "the smart one" of the foursome, as their favorite character.)
When she shows the film, kids often ask her, "Can we really figure out all that stuff?" Heimowitz notes, "That's one of the things about cyberbullying: Kids don't realize we can catch the bully. It opens their eyes to the fact that this is not as anonymous as they might think."
Generating real-time conversations about cyberbullying is one of the best ways to address the problem. Childnet International, based in the United Kingdom, takes a similar approach with its film, Let's Fight It Together, in which a teen boy is the target of cyberbullying. Both the film and a discussion guide for teachers are available online.
Meanwhile, Heimowitz and her Adina's Deck crew are about to take on new adventures: Two more films are in the pipeline. One will address online relationships and predators, and the other will focus on plagiarism and cheating. Both will have a detective story line, with the girls from the original film, plus a new boy character, on the case.
Has cyberbullying been an issue at your school? How have you addressed it? Please share your thoughts.