Film highlights the harm done by cyberbullies

Hundreds of Bergen County, N.J., teachers are being trained to use a new film, “Sticks and Stones,” to help students understand the irreversible consequences of cyberbullying via social networks, e-mail, cellphones, instant messages and texting.

Such bullying drives Brandon, the film’s main character, to suicide.

The nonprofit film was developed by Andrew Yeager, a school psychologist and student assistance counselor at Park Ridge High School, the Bergen County Prosecutor’s Office and Chase Wilson, a Montvale production company. Student actors performed. Officials at the prosecutor’s office said no tax dollars were used to make the film just money confiscated from criminals.

Yeager discussed the film’s mission with The Hackensack, N.J. Record:

Q: Who is the target audience?

A: The primary audience is mostly high school age. The second target is parents who really need to understand the nature of online interactions, socializing online and the virtual aspect of kids’ lives, which can be all-consuming for some kids.

Q: What will parents and kids learn from the film?

A: They’ll learn that online communication is far from a perfect art. Miscommunications abound. When kids are communicating online, they think they’re just having a little fun, but the impact on the victim ... can be devastating. You’re not getting all the nonverbal cues and feedback that our whole society is based on, you can’t tell when you’re hurting somebody, you can’t tell when the joke gets carried away. ... When you get on the computer there’s a false sense of security. It’s even worse when there’s a deliberate attempt to hassle a kid. Years ago, a kid could leave the school or the playground and find safe haven at home. Now bullying is around the clock. There’s no safe haven.

Q: People have been talking about cyberbullying for years now. Do you see any progress in toning it down?

A: Not yet. More kids are doing it. People are talking about the dangers on an abstract level and it just becomes one more of those things that adults tell kids not to do. It really has to be portrayed in a way kids can see it. Once it becomes more tangible, when it becomes easier to see it in — action and see the consequences, you’re more likely to get kids’ — attention and have some impact.

Q: How does this film accomplish that goal?

A: It’s an unflinching look at what online bullying looks like and what the potential consequences can be. You’re watching both sides. ... You see the hurt in the victim’s face, the pain. You certainly see how easily something that started out as kids having fun got out of control without any of the normal social markers to let kids know that enough is enough. Adolescents are impulsive. They could make a vicious attack, a put-down, threats — such as “I’m going to kill you” — or send a picture. These are moments of madness. Once (these messages) get out there in the world they have implications far beyond what most adolescents can conceptualize.

Q: How can I get a copy for my school?

A: The film and discussion guides are free, but teachers must be trained to use the program. Contact Drew Donofrio at adonofriobcpo.net to sign up. See clips at chasewilson.com/ sticksandstones/.

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