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On Safer Internet Day, adults ask teens for help

The annual event tries to quash bullying and cruelty among kids on the Internet by enlisting their peers.

The Internet can be a perilous place for teens, especially when they run into bullies.

You don't have to look far for examples. A number of teens have committed suicide after experiencing cruel online behavior. As far back as 2003, a 13-year-old boy in Vermont hanged himself after being tormented by classmates on AOL Instant Messenger. As recently as last February, a 14-year-old girl in Las Vegas hanged herself after classmates set up a Facebook page impersonating and mocking her. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated in 2014 that nearly 15 percent of adolescents experience electronic bullying in the United States.

Internet companies and children's advocates have organized the annual international Safer Internet Day on Tuesday to help fight back. In the US, for example, nearly 300 students will attend and more will watch the Webcast of a Los Angeles-area event to hear about online problems from teens and others. After that, the students will brainstorm ways to create a kinder Internet.

Cyberbullying can make life online very dark indeed.

Justin Paget/Corbis

That the event exists at all highlights an odd truth about the Internet in teens' lives. While young people can find supportive online communities and "It Gets Better" videos to give them hope for the future, they can just as easily be torn down by friends and strangers that their parents can't even see.

Larry Magid, who helped organize the LA-area event, said the day seeks to celebrate the positive. But, he added, "the only reason we need a Safer Internet Day is that there are things that happen online that hurt people."

Safer Internet Day has been marked in Europe for 13 years. This year's US event is taking place at Universal Studios Hollywood, complete with anti-bullying activists and professional wrestlers.

That's right, pro wrestlers. World Wrestling Entertainment's Mike Mizanin might spend most of his days hurling insults at ringside crowds when he's playing "The Miz." But, Magid said, "there's a difference between performing as a bad guy and being a decent person."

Other pro wrestlers have championed the anti-bullying message, including Hulk Hogan, who created an after-school special on the topic with cable channel Nickelodeon nearly three decades ago.

ASKfm, one of the LA-area event's sponsors, perhaps knows better than most why such events are so important. The social networking site, which lets anonymous users ask one another questions, was linked in 2013 to UK teens who committed suicide after receiving cruel messages. The site was later purchased by Ask.com, which is still trying to improve its reputation by stamping out cyberbullying.

"We've been actively working toward that for the past year and half," said Catherine Teitelbaum, chief trust and safety officer at ASKfm.

Teitelbaum came to ASKfm expressly to address the problems and accusations that dogged the service. Where the site was previously criticized for not handling reports of abuse at all, Teitelbaum said now it offers 24/7 customer support and moderation of comments in 49 languages.

Tuesday's event will also feature a panel of teen activists called "Rejecting Hate, Building Resilience & Growing the Good Online." The panelists will include Helen Le, a junior at Loara High School in Orange County, California, who campaigns for positivity on social media with the hashtag #iCANHELP, and Ruby Rawlinson, a senior at Redwood High School in Marin County, California, who pitched in on a campaign called "Be Kind Online."

Putting them on stage right after The Miz is "making a statement" that bullying online is not cool, Magid said.

The event will be mirrored by another later this month that focuses on parents. At the annual RSA cybersecurity conference in San Francisco, experts will give parents tips on protecting their kids from online harassment and other perils.

Many parents wish there was a simple solution, like an Internet filter that blocks inappropriate content. But Sandra Toms, RSA Conference vice president, said that talking with kids and setting expectations is the most important thing a parent can do. Staying involved in your children's online life might prevent them from bullying other kids or becoming a target themselves without you knowing it.

"The more open you are and available you are as a parent when they're young, the better," Toms said.