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Congress is trying to address online bullying. One Hartford school isn't waiting for Washington

A Hartford student shares her story about her struggles with trauma from social media exploitation/ bullying.
Ayannah Brown
/
Connecticut Public
A Hartford student shares her story about her struggles with trauma from social media exploitation/ bullying.

Note: This story mentions sexual assault. If you or someone you know is struggling, help is available through the Connecticut Alliance to End Sexual Violence 888-999-5545.

At Kennelly School in Hartford, Lia, 11, has an unusual job. She works to de-escalate high emotions and fights that started on social media the night before.

“Next day, verbal fights turn physical in hallways, in classrooms,” she said. “We’re scared that people are taking our images, photographs and stuff. Everybody blames each other for it and then I try my best to comfort them in a way that could calm them down.”

Children and teens are struggling with their mental health in school — and teachers and parents point to a major stressor; bullying on social media. In response, lawmakers are working to pass legislation aimed at protecting children from bullying and sexual exploitation on social media platforms.

 

Lia said student bullies hide behind anonymous accounts — things can get so bad that one of her friends stopped coming to school. “They posted very mean comments and she didn’t want to come to school; she kept making up excuses,” Lia said. “That went on two months or so.”

Lia herself was bullied. Someone posted nasty comments about her appearance. And that’s why we’re not mentioning her last name – her parents fear more bullying.

Now, she’s helping her peers regulate their emotions as she navigates bullying on Instagram, TikTok and Snapchat because a “lot of people on social media have been very negative about each other and it causes people’s mood to drop,” she said.

June Cahill, principal of Kennelly School, said the staff is overwhelmed by the number of conflicts starting on social media. So they recruited students like Lia to help.

This year, the school banned cell phones during the school day. But Cahill said that only helps in class.

“Seventy to 80% of those situations didn't occur during the school day,” she said. “It's nothing that happened in math class. It's actually from the night before while they were on social media. We're very concerned about how preoccupied our students are with social media, and we are very worried about their mental health.”

Parents in Connecticut, and beyond, share those concerns.

Deb Schmill from Massachusetts sat in a hotel room in Washington, D.C., about to meet with lawmakers. Over Zoom she pulled up photos of her daughter Becca on her phone — a beautiful teen with a warm smile.

“We were visiting the University of Richmond where she was planning on going to college,” Schmill said. “Becca was just full of life. She was funny. She was sweet. She was a big hugger. She was so excited to go to college. I know I can't be objective, but I adored her. I adored her.”

When Becca was 15, she and some friends met a few 18-year-old boys online.

“They were excited that 18-year-old-boys were paying attention to them,” Schmill said. “So when the boys invited them to get together, they did. The boys gave them alcohol. My daughter's drink was drugged, and she was raped.”

It didn’t end there.

“Then some girls at school cyberbullied her,” Schmill said. “It was a very serious incident and it was devastating to her. Between these two traumas, she eventually turned to drugs ... as she said it, ‘to fill the emptiness she felt inside.’”

A few years ago, Becca bought drugs on social media. The batch was laced with fentanyl and she died of an overdose. She was 18.

Lia in Hartford said a friend of hers, too, was propositioned for sex online. The adult man wanted to meet with her in person, and when the 10-year-old refused he threatened to track her down.

Now, Schmill and Cahill are working with Connecticut U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, a Democrat, and attempting to change the way social media companies allow minors to engage on their platforms.

The Kids Online Safety Act is a bipartisan legislation and has the backing of Republican senators including Marsha Blackburn from Tennessee.

Blumenthal recently met in Washington, D.C., with Schmill and other parents who’ve lost their children.

“How many more kids have to die?” he said to them. “You know, these are all beautiful children. Any one of them could be one of my four children.”

The legislation would require social media companies to protect minors’ information and disable features that are believed to attract children to their platforms.

Melissa Santos, head of pediatric psychology at Connecticut Children’s, pointed to the addictive algorithms of social media.

“For a lot of our kids that have depression, that have anxiety, we oftentimes will hear from them that they are on the phones a whole lot, that they’re on various social media outlets; kind of can’t turn it off,” she said. “So we know that one of the concerns for social media is that it really can suck kids in.” 

In the U.S. senate currently, the proposed legislation would provide enforcement through the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and states – but the FTC is already encountering resistance. Meta — the parent company of Instagram and Facebook — currently has a lawsuit against the FTC to block the regulator from imposing new restrictions concerning child privacy. The company did not respond to Connecticut Public’s request for a comment.

Back in Hartford, Lia, the student leader, and a group of friends talked about their recent trip to Washington, D.C., where they met with lawmakers to talk about online bullying.

The students were invited to the capital by Blumenthal.   

When asked what was the best part of her trip Lia said with a wide grin, “I was free from social media for so long.” Honestly it felt good, being able to spend time with so many people I love and care about.”

Now, she’s back on TikTok and Instagram.

“I try to get off it, but it’s very addicting,” Lia said. 

She said it’s why lawmakers must do everything they can to help her and kids like her.

Sujata Srinivasan is Connecticut Public Radio’s senior health reporter. Prior to that, she was a senior producer for Where We Live, a newsroom editor, and from 2010-2014, a business reporter for the station.