“Perhaps we were unprepared. Or maybe just naïve.”
After the tragic events surrounding Williamsville teen Jamey Rodemeyer’s 2011 suicide helped spark a public outcry against the phenomenon known as cyberbullying, it’s only fitting to see Muta’Ali Muhammad’s Submit the Documentary: The Virtual Reality of Cyberbullying make its second appearance on the festival circuit here in Buffalo, New York. Inspired by Lady Gaga’s music, this openly bisexual young man posted on YouTube, Formspring, and other Social Media sites to share his experiences and work towards preventing the act of which he himself eventually succumbed. As a result of an unending shower of hate speech and anonymous homophobic bullying, Rodemeyer left this world with an electronic adieu through a Tweet to his idol saying, “bye mother monster”. The sad truth is that his isn’t an isolated incident.
Cyberbullying is a real threat to the youth of America in an ever-evolving world. We’re connected to millions of faceless strangers out there yearning for acceptance and friendship from us as we are from them. If someone wanted to be my friend in Middle School they approached me with an invitation to play Super Nintendo at their house. If they wanted to be my enemy they called me names to my face or threatened abuse. There was no internet to hide behind—we knew who the bullies were and winced in understanding for those who perpetually seemed caught in their cross-hairs. Today the social landscape has changed to where a thousand derogatory comments can accumulate overnight in response to something blatantly hyperbolic or completely untrue by the simple press of a button.
It’s this indirect aggression that provides the potential for such emotionally crippling reactions on behalf of young people uneducated to the dangers of social media or unequipped to handle the fallout. And while Submit carries its share of statistics and crisply animated graphics to illustrate this point, it also carries a wealth of knowledge courtesy of professionals, administrators, parents, and students. We can debate all day about what’s happening and what should be done, but we’ll never understand the gravity of the situation until witnessing cyberbullying’s devastating aftermath or hearing from those entrenched in its cycle. While it used to be easy dismissing internet paranoia with a “don’t connect to people you don’t know,” the kids in our schools are now engaging in these lewd acts as well.
Like Jamey’s, the stories of Megan Meier, Hope Witsell, and Johanna Marie Lowe depict every parent’s worst nightmare. Whether it’s a fictional dreamy boy, the ridicule of peer pressure, or the darkness of a depression one cannot admit, none of these children needed to die. But as Muhammad shows us throughout the film, this is uncharted territory for everyone involved. Kids know sexting photos is illegal due to their age and are aware of the consequences faced when trusting the wrong person. Parents understand the importance of keeping a watchful eye on their children’s online life but worry they may exacerbate matters by infringing on privacy. And schools block site usage in their computer labs but have no clue how to help fight the war outside their walls.
Submit illuminates the pros and cons of litigation, running to the media, and hoping the police will help all the while showing the giddy laughter and smug smiles of kids unafraid to admit their part in the epidemic. Sadly, we can’t hear from those unable to brush off their actions with humor—those victims are now eternally silent. What we can do, however, is learn how to prevent their tragedies from ever occurring again. We can look to mobilize the bystanders who stand by silent, eventually get caught up in the moment, and transform into bullies themselves. We can teach empathy and love and compassion and understanding and hope our children grow strong enough to fight against stereotypical mob mentality. They’re on the frontlines; they’re the ones who can cause change.
For someone like me in his early thirties who grew up at the start of the internet boom, these are concepts I can comprehend. I know what it was like before and have seen the effect on those around me. Submit nicely encapsulates the facts necessary for those who don’t know to grasp the seriousness of what’s happening within our society and open a dialogue to alter the tide. Besides one misstep of repeating the first part of its animated Spectrum of Pain verbatim causing me to think the editor accidentally spliced it in twice before moving into its second half, there’s a real visceral engagement through clean graphics, pleasant score, and healthy dose of informative content. Submit gives us the tools to try and rectify the situation. Now it’s up to us.
For more information on the film and its message, visit the official website at submitthedocumentary.com