#IamJada: When abuse becomes a teen meme

Posted at 9:46 PM, Jul 18, 2014

(CNN) – Jada, a Houston-area 16-year-old, was getting ready for finals week and looking forward to a summer hanging out with friends and finding a job.

On June 1, she went to a friend of a friend’s house party. She recalls little of what went on that evening, she told CNN, but does remember passing out and waking up the next morning at another friend’s house with her clothing askew.

Weeks later, she received text messages showing photos of her unconscious and undressed that appeared to have been taken at the party. Soon, those photos spread on social media, with Twitter users mimicking her passed-out pose and adding the hashtag #jadapose.

Jada and her mother filed a police report about the incident June 22.

“It is an active investigation,” said Jodi Silva, a spokeswoman for the Houston Police Department. “We’re following up on leads that have been given to us. We don’t want to rush the investigation, because there are many facets to it.”

In light of the photos and humiliating #jadapose meme, Jada might have chosen to hide in shame. But in a time when all aspects of teen life have moved from private to public forums, something unique happened: She took hold of the story.

Jada chose to show her face with the support of her mother, Sukiedia. (The family has not used their last name in interviews.)

The teen began speaking to local and national media about the incident and took a photo with the hashtag #iamjada to reveal the real person behind the viral photos.

“There’s no point in hiding,” she told a Houston television station. “Everybody has already seen my face and my body, but that’s not what I am and who I am.”

CNN does not normally identify victims of sexual assault but is doing so in this case because the alleged victim is speaking out.

Jada isn’t the only alleged assault victim moving to reclaim her name and image.

In 2013, Missouri teen Daisy Coleman spoke publicly with the support of her mother after claiming that she was raped by a popular member of her school’s football team.

Last spring, a young woman took to Twitter to ask rape victims to share what they were wearing when they were assaulted, to knock down the assumption that their attire “asked for it.” It led to a discussion on Twitter with the hashtag #RapeHasNoUniform.

“With the case of Jada, the very technology that was used to make matters worse was used to improve matters,” said Stephen Balkam, who has a teenage daughter and is CEO of the Family Online Safety Institute.

In the past week, as word spread about the #jadapose meme, messages of support have poured in.

“Rape isn’t funny,” one post says.

Social media users are adopting the #IamJada hashtag and posting photos of themselves with a fist raised in solidarity.

“This could be you, me, or any woman or girl that we know. What do we plan to do about this ugly epidemic? #justiceforjada,” actress Jada Pinkett Smith wrote on her Facebook page.

Even as public support for Jada is swelling, it’s clear that online abuse isn’t going away anytime soon.

“Teens need to understand that their online behavior has lasting and permanent impacts,” Jim Steyer, a father of four and CEO of Common Sense Media, wrote in an e-mail.

A 2011 Pew study found that 88% of social media-using teens reported that they have seen someone being mean to another person on a social network, and 15% of teens using social media reported being harassed.

More teens are pushing back at this meme-ification of violence by speaking up and creating communities of kindness. But it can sometimes be a trickier path for parents to navigate, experts say.

“Being proactive in our kids’ online lives is key,” Steyer wrote. “It’s not just about turning off devices or encouraging responsible use. It’s about creating a culture of empathy. It’s about knowing what to say and do when your kid is at risk, monitoring (without spying), and knowing the difference between bullying and behavior that is ‘kids being kids.’ ”

When online abuse goes viral, it doesn’t mean the pain is virtual — and the solution isn’t one size fits all.

Scholar Danah Boyd writes about the importance of nuance in addressing online bullying in her book “It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens.”

“Blaming technology or assuming that conflict will disappear if technology usage is minimized is naive,” she writes (PDF). “Recognizing where teens are at and why they engage in particular acts of meanness and cruelty is important to creating interventions that work.”

But parents don’t have to do it alone.

Resources on A Platform for Good can help guide conversations with teens about their digital reputation. Common Sense Media works with schools across America teaching the K-12 Digital Literacy and Citizenship curriculum. MTV’s A Thin Line campaign aims to stop the spread of digital abuse. And author MacKenzie Bezos started the Bystander Revolution, which offers simple ideas to encourage kindness and defuse bullying.

Having a dialogue with kids around acceptable online behavior can begin by talking about events in the news, such as #iamJada, or at school. That starts with teaching kids empathy and accountability.

Parents “should encourage their kids to be up-standers and not bystanders when they see something as negative as what was happening to Jada,” Balkam said.

Speaking up may not be easy, he adds, but it’s worthwhile, whether you’re a bystander or a victim of abuse.

As for Jada, supporters are calling her “brave” and a “hero.” And she is beginning to feel like one.

“Yes, I feel like a heroine, because it takes courage to speak out and show your face, ” she said.