Utah teens facing new kind of Facebook bullying

Posted at 9:41 PM, Feb 27, 2013
and last updated 2013-02-28 10:08:07-05

SALT LAKE CITY - A new form of cyber bullying is on the rise as photos of teens with embarrassing or crude captions are making their way to Facebook for others to ridicule.

Utah-based meme pages, from the University of Utah and BYU to high schools, are showing up on Facebook, featuring celebrities or local students with humorous captions. Some are harmless, while others can be downright cruel.

15-year-old Alejandra Rodriguez from Ogden is a victim of these memes. Photos were taken from her Facebook profile and captioned with vulgar language making it sound as if she's sexually promiscuous.

"It hurt me because it's unnecessary, they don't need to be doing that, to make other people feel like that," Rodriguez said. "Like when I go out, people will look at me like, 'She's a slut. Hey boys don't get with her because she's a slut, she's been around.' So it hurts me in that way, too."

The meme is the latest in what's been four years of cyber bullying, which has led her to three different schools, fights with other students and now, nearly six months of counseling.

"I would rather have her do that than to have to bury my child," said Marisa Rodriguez, Alejandra's mother.

Alejandra isn't alone. Just on Facebook, there are a half-dozen "Utah memes" pages where kids are featured as cheaters, drug addicts, homosexuals and promiscuous.

Sometimes the targeted teens chime in, ridiculing themselves in comments, but others don't find the humor in it.

"They find it funny until it's happening to them. Then they're crying, saying, 'Oh take it down.' They don't like it when it's done to them," Alejandra said.

Chelsea Eakle is another meme victim. Someone copied Chelsea's Facebook picture, then used another site to put captions on the video making fun of her hair.

Some laughed, but others posted mean comments and her picture eventually made it onto a DJ's podcast. Chelsea confronted him and he apologized. She also filed a police report and one website removed her picture, but it was still on other sites.

Police found out that a Cedar City woman manipulated the photo of Chelsea. They confronted that woman, but there isn't a legal way to combat the photos because they don't rise to the level of criminal defamation.

Other memes where teenagers are labeled as drug addicts and sexually promiscuous could rise to defamation, but proving who created the photo and that your reputation has been damaged is a challenge.

Social media experts advise parents to take control of the situation before it gets to that level.

Andrea Corry, whose daughter was bullied via Facebook messages, had her daughter's Facebook profile linked to her email, so Andrea is aware of any comments or other Facebook activity on her daughter's page.

With sites like Facebook, Tumblr, Pinterest and Twitter, it's easy to find a photo, manipulate it and spread the insults.

"Before it was, you got made fun of and it was just the people who heard it. Now you get made fun of and everyone knows about on their cell phone in a matter of 30 minutes," said Benjamin Ard, director of social media for Lead Genix.

There are ways to fight back, from removing photos from Facebook to getting rid of virtual "friends."

"A child should understand their privacy policies. Knowing, 'Okay, only my friends can see this,' and knowing that if someone is bullying them, they don't need to be friends with bullies," Ard said.

Some schools have started anti-bullying campaigns and created ways for students to anonymously notify them of cyber bullying complaints.

"We talk about how to protect yourself. So for example, with cyber bullying, print it out, tell an adult, lock phone and messages so they can't be deleted, keep the evidence and then make sure they're not on your Facebook, so that there's evidence in a situation where charges can be filed," said Julie Scherzinger, school counselor at Sunset Ridge Middle School.

There are currently three suicide prevention bills before the Utah Legislature. One would require schools to notify parents if their kid threatens suicide or if the child is bullied. It also requires schools to update their policies to deal with issues like cyber bullying.