George Lucas Educational Foundation
Subscribe to RSS

Cinema vs. Cyberbullies: Using Filmmaking to Fight Online Harassment

Suzie Boss

Journalist and PBL advocate
  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Pinterest
  • Share

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.

Was this useful?

Comments (12) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

Suzanne's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I think cyberbullying is more frequent then most people think because it does give them that sense of empowerment.They do think it is anonymous.I know when I bought my teenager his first cellphone this year he was mad when I did not have his phone connected to the internet. I was worried about cyberbullying. He is very sensitive and I know it would have a very negative effect on him. I think this movie sounds great. Anytime you can get kids talking about problems and solutions, it is a good thing. They are the future of the world. They need to decide to take a stand against such negative, hateful behavior. I also think as adults it is important to teach cyber responsibility.

Sara's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Hey there!I found your page while surfing the web, just figured to say nice site!
Thank you so much for allowing me the opportunity to visit this site. everyone should be aware of these things, them are really useful.

Bethany Romeo from Scottdale, Pa's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I have personally completed the I-Safe training for educators, and found it to be especially useful. I teach for a cyber charter school in Pennsylvania, and knowing just the acronyms that students are using rather than words will help in detering bullying and may help alert parents if there is a problem. Though I took the I-Safe training as an inservice for a private school, I have recommended it for our cyber school teachers and for the students and parents as a part of our introduction to cyber school training.

I have not heard of cyberbullying as a problem in our school, though the students have very limited face-to-face contact with each other. They also are very happy to meet each other when they do gather for events.

I strongly urge all schools to participate in I-Safe training. With the age of technology upon us, our students sometimes know more than we do about how computers and the Internet work. It's our first job to keep them safe.

Paul Z's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Thank you for this information. I had not considered that this would be a problem. Has anyone shown this video, Adina's Deck, in a school? If so, were the students receptive to the video? I may be looking at getting my school to purchase the video if it has proven to be worhtwhile.

Paul's picture
Anonymous (not verified)


Thank you for your insight into the I-Safe program. My school (also in Pennsylvania!) is always looking for in-service topics, and this may be very beneficial.

Bethany Romeo's picture
Anonymous (not verified)


You are welcome! If you do the training, you won't be disappointed.


Brianna's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I have not heard of cyberbullying as an issue. I suppose that it could be more of an issue than I realized. Cyberbullying is a scary avenue that this newer technology will bring about. The video sounds like a great way to address this among schools, and perhaps bring it to an end or at least lessen the chances of this taking place. I am glad that this is being addressed in the schools, and that these young girls were the ones to help with the process. I am sure that the help from these young ladies has helped to put validity to the video.

Tony Varni's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

For insight on how students react to the film, contact Cathie, Peggy, or Laurel in the counseling department at the Vandenberg Middle School in California (805)742-2710. More than 850 6th, 7th and 8th graders watched the Adina's Deck CyberBully pilot on Monday October 13th. They discussed the issue with the writer, director, and actress who played the role of Adina.

Good news from the creators of Adina's Deck! The World Premiere of Episodes 2 and 3 will take place in Modesto, California on October 25th. Episode 2, The Case of the Online Crush, deals with online predators and some potentially dangerous behavior online. Episode 3, The Case of the Plagiarized Paper, touches on cheating and plagiarism and the consequences and effects. Both new DVD's will be available soon!

Kelly G.'s picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Thank you so much for sharing your video. Many people are not aware of the bullying problems and that it is now "easier" for the bully with all of the technology at their hands. Students can anonymously post and send instant text messages from afar. A former student of mine had her e-mail account broken into by a classmate and all of her passwords stolen. The bully sent out e-mails from the account to all her classmates and changed her MySpace page. The ramifications were devastating for this student. Your video is not only great for awareness, but it is wonderful to help a student feel empowered in this situation. It's important as educators and parents that we let children know they can fight back. This Cyberbullying website is an interactive web-site with a wealth of information about cyberbullying. The site creator is based in Australia but this is a wonderful reference for teachers, students, and parents. This site includes examples, definitions, lists mediums, safety tips, online resources, latest news, and public service ads.

Morgan Rees's picture

Anyone who's been cyberbullied, is being cyberbullied, or know's someone who's suffering needs to check out this website:

It was advice from this website that helped my family deal with cyberbullying when my daughter was being affected last year.

Sign in to comment. Not a member? Register.