Students like myself often hear the phrase: we are the future. While that is true, I genuinely believe that we are also the now.
That philosophy has guided me through all of my work and my journey, to help make this world a better place. And for me, that journey began in the fall of 2013. I was 13 years old, I came home from school one day to read an article online about an 11-year-old girl. Her name was Rebecca, and she had been cyberbullied for over an year and a half. One day, she decided she couldn’t take it any longer, and she climbed to the top of her town’s water tower and jumped off.
I’ve told that story more times than I can remember. And there is never a time that it becomes easier to tell, because Rebecca is not the only person that had suffered like that. Megan Meier was three weeks away from turning 14, when she started to receive messages online, like, “The world would be a better place without you.” Her mother found her in her bedroom closet, where she hung herself.
And Tyler Clementi, 18 years old, a freshman at Rutgers University, had just come out to the world, his family, his friends as gay. And one day, one of his roommates thought it would be funny to live stream a video of Tyler with his boyfriend in one of their most intimate moments. And the next day, Tyler jumped off the George Washington Bridge to his death.
Those stories haunt me, because more than anything, I wish I could rewrite those stories. I wish that I could go back in time and make every perpetrator rethink what they did. And the question will always haunt me: If I could, would Rebecca, Megan, and Tyler still be alive today? Cyberbullying is a big problem: 52% of adolescents in the US alone have been cyberbullied. We’re talking about 12 million people. Many of these victims suffered from low self-esteem, depression, in rare cases, suicidal tendencies.
And when I was faced with this issue, I immediately recognized that social media sites were not doing enough to try and curb this behavior. A lot of the things that they were doing, like allowing victims of cyberbullying to block cyberbullies online, were reactive; after the damage was done I wanted a proactive solution. I wanted to understand why kids were doing this, and how I could use that to tackle the issue.
So I started doing a little research. The adolescent brain is one of the most fascinating parts of the human body and the human species in general; because we understand so little of how it works. But I’ve always been fascinated by the brain, and how we make decisions in everyday society.
Something really interesting about our brain is that when we are born, our brain actually develops from the back to the front. And by the time we are 13, almost 90% is done. It’s just this 10%, right up here, that’s left to go. Scientists call that part of the brain the prefrontal cortex.
And rather ironically, adults, that controls decision-making and impulse control. So a lot of our teenagers end up making decisions that they regret later. And adults often ask, “What were you thinking?” “Why would you do that?” And for any of the teenagers in the room, I’m sure they can relate when you say, “What? I don’t know what I was thinking, I just did it, it was just impulsive. It was the spur of the moment.” And the fact is teenagers are not good at thinking through their actions.
I thought, “How curious. Maybe that’s why teenagers don’t realize the significance of what they’re posting on social media.” What if I can take what I know about the adolescent brain and create a solution to stop cyberbullying? That is when “ReThink” was born.
“ReThink” is any adolescent who’s about to post something offensive on social media, like, “Go kill yourself,” or “You are so ugly”: a second chance to reconsider their decision “Woah, hold on. Are you sure this message is worthy of you? Are you sure you really want to post this on social media?”
When I first came up with this idea, I had no idea if it was going to work I had no idea if kids were going to take it seriously, if it actually had any kind of scientific validation. I knew I had to validate it I had to go out there and make sure that it was an effective solution.
So, over the course of my eighth-grade year in high school, I ended up conducting a 1,500 trial scientific study that found that over 93% of the time when an adolescent receives a second chance to rethink their decision, they change their mind and decide not to post an offensive message on social media.
So, the overall willingness to post an offensive message actually dropped from 71% to less than 5%. I was stunned. Here I was, sitting on the world’s most effective proactive solution to stop cyberbullying at the age of 14. And I’m like, “My goodness, we’ve had a solution all along.”
From there, “ReThink” exploded. I’ve been blessed to have been able to travel around the globe, to the White House, I’m being validated by MIT, in Northwestern, I’m all the way to Google Headquarters, and most recently, on ABC’s “Shark Tank”. None of those awards and accolades mean as much to me as getting “ReThink” in the hands of the millions of kids around the world that need it.