There’s a soul behind that screen

Neil Giacobbi is associate vice president for Citizenship and Sustainability at AT&T. This year he produced a film for parents with real stories told by teenagers about their own experiences with cyberbullying.  There’s a Soul Behind That Screen was selected by the American Public Health Association to be screened at their conference in Atlanta on November 7th.


Why did you make this film?  It was in response to what we learned from surveys of teens and parents in the New York metro area. 41% of teens said their social media experience was mostly mean and 25% said it was getting worse. 80% of teens knew someone who had been bullied online and 55% had experienced online abuse themselves. Yet 78% of parents said comments by people they knew online tended to be kind. This contrast got our attention because it signaled a gap between the reality of teens’ social media lives and what their parents knew about it. So, to get parents attention we invited teen filmmakers from thirty high schools to share stories about online bullying, and we took the best of those films to create There’s a Soul Behind That Screen —a 20-minute educational film that shows what cyberbullying looks like and what can cause it.

The iPhone is now ten years old.  How has it changed parenting?  For many parents there are still distinct online and offline worlds. This isn’t the case for adolescents and teens where social media is life. It’s how they experience friendship, love and humiliation, and for young people, it’s all on a smartphone by their side 24/7. One line we heard from our teen filmmakers was parents telling kids to cope with cyberbullying by turning off their phones. That advice ignores the omnipresence of social media and how comments about a teen’s clothing, sexuality or a particular incident continues whether or not the child is present in the conversation.  

Social media reflects real life but obviously it can also be manipulated. This is what an online bully does. I spent a lot of time with Jane Clementi, the mother of Tyler who took his life in 2010 after being secretly recorded in an intimate encounter and the video was streamed online to his dormmates. (The Clementis helped AT&T develop the polling and film contest.) I’ve heard Jane say how her son reading the comments about himself on social media distorted his world view so much that he lost touch with reality. That’s the power of social media to enable people to so easily create an illusion.

What’s your advice for parents? I think parents need to bring the same vigor to their kids social media lives that they bring to their kids academics, sports or performing arts. But unlike social media, parents are familiar with these facets of their kids lives from their own experience. For parents to get involved in social media they should listen and show empathy because they don’t experience the online world as their kids do. Parents simply don’t know what they don’t know about social media, and that’s why we worked with teens to make this film  – to encourage parents to make social media part of their everyday dialog with their kids.