Most of us agree on the basics. We don't like bullying, cyberbullying, personal attacks, hate and bigotry. Yet, we too often resort to those actions online. I have been watching the controversy with the Dr. Phil tweet. We are so quick to attack. So quick to take offense. So quick to cast blame on others or think the worst of them.
Dr. Phil has done an extraordinary amount of good. You may not watch him or be one of his fans, but millions do and are. When he covers an issue, people pay attention. And in the post-Oprah void, he is one of the few that can shine the light on important issues, devoting an entire show to a problem.
I first met Dr. Phil three years ago when testifying before Congress on the same panel on cyberbullying. The Girl Scouts, a principal from Texas, Build-A-Bear's CTO and a psychiatrist were also on the panel. The Girl Scouts testified that I had developed the GS's cyberbullying and cybersafety program. The principal testified that I had interceded and helped one of her students over Thanksgiving weekend with a myspace problem. Dave Finnegan, from BaB, created me with helping design the BaB anti-bullying campaign. Dr. Phil probably had no idea who I was before that panel. (His producers had called me several times to do the show, previously.)
But when asked during the questions and answers what people should do when cyberbullied, Dr. Phil said, "It's obvious, call Parry!" To his credit, he did. I did two of his shows back-to-back. Both, sadly, covered cyberbullying-related suicides.
What surprised me the most when working with him was how much he really cared. Before going on the first time, he cautioned me to be gentle and non-judgmental with the young girl who had gotten into trouble online. (He didn't know me well enough to know I am always on the side of kids.) He is driven to stop abuse of young people by others of all ages.
Rehtaeh Parsons is no different. A young teen took her own life after being sexually attacked by teens and having the images of the attack go viral. She lived in Nova Scotia, Canada, a kind and gentle province on the East Coast, not far from where I have my summer cottage and offices. Sadly, an almost identical case occurred in California three weeks later. Two young women, lost to our help. They faced sexual assault, people who didn't believe them and the humiliation of images of their attack circulating widely among their classmates and peers.
I was honored to be asked by the Ministry of Education and of Women and Children to keynote the Speak Up! Nova Scotia conference. It was held to begin fulfilling the action plan outlined by the Nova Scotia Cyberbullying Task Force. Wayne MacKay, a law professor at Delhousie School of Law in NS chaired the task force. He invited me to testify before it on its opening day more than two years ago.
The Task Force was formed following the tragic suicides of two young teens in Nova Scotia following separate cyberbullying campaigns against them. Two years later, Rehtaeh's suicide emphasized the importance of cyberbullying prevention and solutions. And the need to move faster.
Following on the heels of the Nova Scotia conference, we will be hosting one in November, on Prince Edward Island (Anne of Green Gables country), an adjoining province to Nova Scotia. Building on the momentum of Nova Scotia's campaign, young people from across Canada and the US will come together with adult experts, Facebook, Microsoft and Rehtaeh's family to forge a holistic action plan. In a day-long summit, government leaders, industry leaders, students leaders, educational and wellness professionals and the RCMP and victims' rights advocates will join forces to design a strategy to move the ball forward.
When I first met with Rehtaeh's father and step-mother following my keynote address, I was touched by their loss. They shared what am amazing young woman she was. She was passionate about protecting animals, and had dreams of working with the whale conservationists near Japan. She was a wonderful older sister, too.
Rehtaeh's younger sister, mourning her loss, asked their mother for a "Map to Heaven." When Leah asked her why she wanted a "Map to Heaven," she explained that she needed it to get to Rehtaeh in heaven. Glen's recounting of this story brought us all to tears. So we decided that we would remember Rehtaeh for all the things that made her special. I want her remembered for her life, not her tragic victimization or death. So, together with Rehtaeh's friends, family and caring volunteers we are building a new site in her memory. We may not be able to give her little sister a real map to heave, but at amaptoheaven.com she'll be able to see a map of Rehtaeh's life and memories of those who cared for her any time she wants to with the click of the mouse.
Now, back to Dr. Phil. If anyone thinks that he posts all his own tweets, I have a bridge in Brooklyn to sell them at a discount. The tweets are designed to provoke a response or viral promotion. It wasn't smart. It was ill-advised. But it was a tweet, not a disaster. Let it go. If it demonstrated his opinion, or was intentionally offensive, the outrage might be warranted. But it was not.
The good Dr. Phil does and the level of passion he truly has for these issues should be more than enough to allow the mistake to become history. And the energy people are spending attacking him should instead be directed to helping address cyberbullying and sexual violence problems.
We don't have time to waste taking potshots. Let's not become the bullies we oppose.