Is Creating a Kinder and Braver Online World an Uphill Battle?

Raul A. Palacios, Ed.S.

Born This Way Foundation and University of Nebraska – Lincoln

In 2015, a CNN article reported that teen’s spend around nine hours per day on their social media accounts, with some teens checking their accounts over 100 times per day. The simple fact that this revelation is not as shocking as it should be shows us how desensitized and integrated social media has become in our daily lives. The truth is these days you can find just about anything, real or fake, on the internet. And while social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, and Snapchat are flooded with content ranging from silly cat videos to international news reports, managing the content that social media users are exposed to is an increasingly difficult task that these companies are being forced to moderate. However, social media companies currently do not have a standard protocol for content moderation given the complexity of free speech laws and cultural variations. What may be offensive for one group of people may be completely acceptable and appropriate for another group of people.

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The Science Of Play: Mattel And Zomby Gaga

I just returned from Mattel Headquarters in Los Angeles where Born This Way Foundation convened their first in-person Research Advisory Board meeting.

Our research advisory board members are a diverse group of Ph.D.-level researchers from across the United States and Canada. Not only did we spend the day talking about the Born Brave Experiences Research Projects and ways to translate research findings online and offline, we also got the chance to tour Mattel’s research facilities and to discuss opportunities for “real-time” research, designed to build a kinder and braver world.

At the heart of our conversations was a commitment to conduct research on how science can inform practice. We know that through studying children’s play we can learn about how to promote and support social-emotional skills—skills like emotion regulation and emotion expression that are vital for healthy development. Play is how children make sense of the world around them and providing positive messages through toys is important for scaffolding healthy development.

Not only am I a researcher, I am also a mother to two teenage daughters.

As a parent, it was very important for me that our daughters had access to toys with positive messages. Some of their favorites were the “American Girl” and “Monster High” characters. Monster High is a fictitious high school where everyone is accepted. I was particularly excited to get a sneak-peak at Zomby Gaga, Monster’s High’s latest character, who was designed by Lady Gaga’s sister, Natali.

Zomby Gaga’s message is about celebrating differences and promoting acceptance through kindness. She’s a great addition to Monster High, which is a place where students accept, embrace, and celebrate differences.

Our differences make us unique and if every school and place was like Monster High, then we wouldn’t have bullying, cruel, and mean behavior. Mattel, Monster High, and Born This Way Foundation are leading this translational research effort—through play we can build a kinder and braver world.

You can join our efforts by signing the #KindMonsters pledge and promising to practice compassion every day. (And, of course, you can pre-order your own Zomby Gaga.)

In kindness and bravery,

Dr. Sue

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HEAR Anti-bullying Workshops and SWPBIS: Supporting Positive Behavior in Schools

The time that school professionals spend teaching children is valuable. So many work every day to promote positive academic and social-emotional outcomes for all children. In return, they anticipate that children are motivated to fully engage in every opportunity to learn and grow while they happily continue to follow their dreams of shaping the future of children.

*Cue the scratching record sound.* What? Not all children are learning and growing to their potential? And problem behaviors in schools, such as bullying, are disrupting the intention of school professionals to provide a safe learning environment for children? What about the positive academic and social-emotional outcomes that we envision for all children? In a recent HEAR blog post, Learning with the Burdens of Bullying, we pointed out how, “Bullying creates an unwelcome atmosphere where students may develop low self-esteem and feel afraid, depressed, lonely, shame, anxious, worried and unmotivated with a negative view of school, so of course, bullying may lead to missed opportunities to learn (and thus, low achievement).” For that reason, a substantial number of K-12 schools across the country are taking back valuable teaching and learning time by implementing School-Wide Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports (SWPBIS; Bradshaw, Mitchell, & Leaf, 2010). HEAR – Helping Everyone Achieve Respect – is a tool that can help with this approach.

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HEAR, HEAR! Data Support Pilot Middle School Bullying Prevention Presentation

Recent data from a pilot implementation of the HEAR for Middle Schools program provided staff with promising results. Developed and implemented through an ongoing collaboration between Career Training Concepts and researchers at The Harvard Graduate School of Education’s Making Caring Common Project and the University of Nebraska – Lincoln, the pilot study provided educators, parents, and students with invaluable feedback regarding what youth from five states thought about the intervention.

HEAR for High Schools is a research-based bullying prevention presentation for students that is given by the Army National Guard in high schools across the United States. Using the Guard members in their local communities is a novel approach to anti-bullying efforts. The National Guard members are trained through a train-the-trainer model and then they deliver the presentation to high school students. Feedback from youth who have taken part in these presentations have been very positive, helping spur the development of HEAR for Middle Schools. This new program targets the middle school student’s knowledge regarding examples of bullying, as well as strategies for intervening and stopping bullying from occurring.

Beginning in early 2015, the HEAR for Middle Schools has been implemented in seven middle schools across five states, collecting survey data and student feedback from 1,149 youth (55% female; 45% male; 54% Caucasian; 8% African-American; 20% Hispanic; 4% Asian-American; 13% other). After participating in the HEAR presentation, students:

• 60% reported that bullying was a problem in their school.

• 69% reported that they had witnessed bullying within the last school year.

• 84% indicated that accepting differences is an important part of their school’s culture.

• 88% indicated that the HEAR presentation helped them learn about the different forms of disrespect.

• 93% said that HEAR motivated them to try harder to respect and include others.

• 90% reported that HEAR provided them with ideas for what to do when they witness bullying.

• 88% reported that HEAR helped them learn strategies for building respect in their school.

• 95% felt that the HEAR presenter did a good job.

• 96% said that the HEAR presenter was knowledgeable about the topic.

Through reading, writing and discussion, students consider possible strategies to prevent or respond to bullying.

Students also provided support for the HEAR Middle School Program through their open-ended feedback. Many youth reported that the most helpful aspect of the program was the realistic example scenarios, saying “I found that the scenarios were helpful, because I could ask myself what I would do” and “The scenarios [were the most helpful], because it actually showed them accurate[ly].” Providing youth with representative examples of their bullying experiences allows them to realistically consider alternative responses and process what they can do to stop bullying in their schools. As one students reported, the situations “… allowed you to put [you’re] your knowledge to the test & apply it to real life.”

Another important aspect that middle school students reported was the program’s inclusion of strategies for addressing bullying. For example, one participant stated, “I felt that there are many more ways than I thought to handle bullying.” Although bullying is a frequent problem that many youth encounter, the most helpful response is not always clear. Providing students with examples of how to intervene when they encounter bullying as a bystander or a victim provides them with the resources and knowledge they need should they encounter bullying in the future.

Lastly, students indicated that a strength of the HEAR  presentation was its inclusion of information and examples of cyberbullying. Cyberbullying is a unique form of bullying that takes place through electronic formats, such as social media, texting, and online gaming. Considering the prevalence of technology use by adolescents, it comes as no surprise that many want more information on what to do when they encounter cyberbullying. Recent movements, such as the “I Am A Witness” campaign, represent a recognition of the need for youth to stand up and support those who are bullied online. However, youth can also benefit from additional strategies that help them navigate how to respond to cyberbullying messages and stay safe online. Many social media sites now include privacy settings that allow them to remove posts, delete messages, and block individuals. By combining the numerous strategies available to youth for countering electronic bullying, we help them to be safer and kinder in both their in-person and digital lives.

We want to thank our special guest bloggers, Mr. Zachary Myers and Dr. Sue Swearer, for describing HEAR data and implications in this post from a  position of experience and expertise in using data to understand and prevent bullying.

Zach is a doctoral student in the School Psychology Program at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. His research interests include the relationship between victims and perpetrators of cyberbullying and their mental health outcomes. He is also interested in the effects of cyberbullying via Web-based social networking sites and online gaming. 

Dr. Swearer serves as professor of school psychology at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln and co-director of the Bullying Research Network. As principal investigator of the Target Bullying: Best Practices in Bullying Prevention and Intervention project, Dr. Swearer has a long-standing track record of working with schools and districts nationwide to reduce bullying behaviors. Most recently, she has partnered with the Making Caring Common Project at Harvard University and Career Training Concepts to develop the HEAR presentation.

To learn more about the work of our guest bloggers, visit Also, connect with them on social media: Twitter (@DrSusanSwearer@Bully_Research) and Facebook via theEmpowerment Initiative and Bullying Research Network pages.


For more information about HEAR, please contact

Dr. Amy Smith, Director of Educational Programs

Career Training Concepts, Inc.

Phone: 678-405-5670 / Email:

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Thoughts on the 5th annual BRNET Think Tank

The Bullying Research Network and Boston University’s Social Adjustment and Bullying Prevention Laboratory co-hosted the 5th annual Bullying Research Network Think Tank on June 9-10th, 2015. It was great to connect with our diverse group of BRNET members! Please read Professor David Yamada’s blog on his first experience at a BRNET Think Tank. Thanks, David, for attending and for helping to make the 5th annual BRNET Think Tank a success!

David Yamada’s blog:

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H.E.A.R. partnerships promote Guard training, bullying prevention

HEAR graphic

Staff from UNL’s Empowerment Initiative, in collaboration with Career Training Concepts and the Making Caring Common (MCC) project, will conduct in a June 2-3 “train the trainers” bullying workshop in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Workshop participants include 44 National Guard members, representing 12 states, who will learn about bullying research and how “Helping Everyone Achieve Respect (H.E.A.R.)” can stop bullying behaviors.

Many states have already sent National Guard leaders for the “train the trainers” workshop, and H.E.A.R. will have trained more than 200 leaders from 35 states after the June workshop. The goal of H.E.A.R. is to empower National Guard recruiters to teach an anti-bullying presentation that reinforces and extends the Guard values of loyalty, duty, respect, selfless service, honor, integrity, and personal courage.

H.E.A.R. is the first anti-bullying presentation geared toward high school students that can be delivered by National Guard representatives in schools across the United States. It was developed in collaboration with Career Training Concepts by Susan Swearer, founder of the Empowerment Initiative, and Rick Weissbourd and Stephanie Jones, founders of the MCC project from the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

Since 2013, the H.E.A.R. presentation has been given in 42 states, and survey data has been collected from more than 12,678 students. The results reflect the impact of the H.E.A.R. message. Based on data from 7,807 students in grades 10-12 (46% female; 49% male; 61% Caucasian; 10% African-American; 13% Hispanic; 3% Asian-American; 2% Biracial), students reported:

  • 61% indicate bullying is a problem in their school.
  • 69% have witnessed bullying in past school year.
  • 84% were motivated by the H.E.A.R. presentation to try to prevent bullying.
  • 87% said the H.E.A.R. presentation helped them understand what bullying is and why people bully.
  • 84% said the H.E.A.R. presentation gave them useful strategies to try to prevent bullying.
  • 86% said the H.E.A.R. presentation gave them useful ideas for what to do if they are bullied.
  • 87% said the H.E.A.R. presentation gave them useful ideas for what to do if they witness bullying.
  • 92% said the H.E.A.R. presenter communicated effectively.
  • 92% said the H.E.A.R. presenter was knowledgeable about the topic.
  • 92% said the H.E.A.R. presenter treated them with respect.

After new questions were added to the H.E.A.R. survey, approximately 4,195 students filled out the revised survey. They reported:

  • 85% said they felt safe at their schools
  • 60% said students at their school reach out to help each other
  • 80% said their school faculty and staff actively work to create a positive, caring environment
  • 76% said appreciating diversity is an important part of their school’s culture
  • 89% said the H.E.A.R. presentation influenced their commitment to respecting and including others
  • 91% said the character values discussed in H.E.A.R. are important to them

At the Empowerment Initiative, we focus on translational research in order to foster positive, accepting schools and communities free from bullying and other negative behaviors. One of our goals is to scale-up bullying prevention and intervention efforts. By partnering with the National Guard, we are excited to create a national force of bullying prevention personnel who can influence positive growth in their homes, schools, and communities. Putting the Guard values of loyalty, duty, respect, selfless service, honor, integrity, and personal courage into practice advances our ultimate goal to help everyone achieve respect and end bullying once and for all.


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Empowerment Initiative hosts #TextTalkAct event May 7

“I have never been remotely ashamed of having been depressed. Never,” Rowling said in the interview. “What’s to be ashamed of? I went through a really rough time and I am quite proud that I got out of that.”

—J.K. Rowling

Talking about mental health is an important first step in destigmatizing mental illness, which affects one in four people worldwide. The Empowerment Initiative will continue the conversation as it hosts UNL’s second “Text, Talk, Act” event May 7 from 12-1 p.m. in the Counseling and School Psychology Clinic at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln. The event is part of a nationwide initiative and is open to UNL students and faculty. 

Anyone can participate via Twitter and Facebook, using the hashtag #TextTalkAct.

Sample tweets include:

  • Because conversation matters and #MentalHealthMatters. Let’s #TextTalkAct about it:
  • What will you do when your friend needs help? #TextTalkAct to get informed. Coming May 7:
  • Because a small act of kindness can make a big difference. #TextTalkAct to be part of the change:
  • May 7: 1 hour. 4 people. 1 phone. That’s all it takes to be part of #TextTalkAct because #MentalHealthMatters!

Sample posts include:

  • Because conversation matters. Because mental health matters. Let’s talk about it.
  • What will you do when your friend needs help? Learn how to talk about it. Text, Talk, Act is coming May 7:
  • Take care of yourself. Take care of your friends. Learn how on May 7th. Text Talk Act:
  • May 7: 1 hour. 4 people. 1 phone. That’s all it takes to be part of Text, Talk, Act because Mental Health Matters!
  • Mental Health Matters. How do you take care of yours? Text, Talk, Act about it on May 7:

From all of us at the Empowerment Initiative and Creating Community Solutions, we hope to see millions of people nationwide participating in this important event May 7.

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Swearer publishes ‘Born This Way’ article for Huffington Post

This article originally appeared on the Huffington Post.

There has been growing attention lately, from politicians and the media, on charities founded by celebrities that spend more time talking about doing good works than actually doing them. Born This Way Foundation is not one of these.

The foundation has one mission: to make the world a kinder and braver place. It is a simple goal but not an easy task. When Lady Gaga and her mom, Cynthia Germanotta, founded the organization, they did so in the belief that the only way to fulfill this mission was by reaching young people — by understanding what they need to become healthy individuals as well as empowered members of their communities. That’s why Born This Way Foundation has worked to connect, engage, and inspire young people — on the road, in their communities, and online.

As their public filings demonstrate, Cynthia, as president of the organization, draws no salary from Born This Way Foundation. It spends its resources directly on reaching young people, to the tune of over $3 million.

First, there was the Born Brave Bus Tour. Partnering with more than 30 local and national organizations including the National Association of School Psychologists (NASP); the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network (GLSEN); Active Minds; and Youth Service America, the bus tour provided key infrastructure to connect coalition groups with young people. The bus tour, which attracted over 150,000 participants between 2013 and 2014, was a place where young people could connect with one another as well as learn about important mental- and emotional-health resources in their communities and across the United States. It was a place where they could equip and empower themselves to tackle whatever problems they may be facing and be inspired to be kind and brave ambassadors in their communities.

By meeting young people where they were, the bus tour revealed a major gap in the way we approach ensuring the well-being of our young people. Academic research examines how to improve the mental and social conditions of adolescents, but what is often ignored is the translation of the research into the most effective ways to deliver such services. Traditional mental-health delivery methods that we think are appropriate, like telephone hotlines and self-help books, may not actually be useful or effective for young people. Born This Way Foundation is committed to listening to young people themselves and connecting them with the resources they prefer to use.

Second, to reach young people where they are, the foundation partnered with the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, the National Council for Behavioral Health, and the National Association of School Psychologists to collect data from more than 2,500 young people, via both the bus tour and online, on their views of mental-health services and delivery methods. This information formed the basis of two academic papers (presented at the American Psychological Association’s annual conference in August 2014) exploring the gap between the services that are available and the services young people actually want and are willing to use.

Though valuable, this research can only get us so far. So third, Born This Way Foundation, with input from the diverse teens who make up its Youth Advisory Board, has begun to implement these findings into real resources that young people find accessible and effective. Through its website and social media, they are connecting youth with resources both in their communities and online that young people find valuable and easy to use — meeting them where they are instead of forcing outdated and unused service delivery methods on them.

As detailed in the recently released report “Past & Present: A Report on Impact and Our Strategic Vision for the Future,” Born This Way Foundation is gearing up to tackle these issues with a renewed focus on social and emotional learning and mental wellness. Increasingly, academics, educators, parents, and providers understand that young people’s overall well-being is intricately connected to their ability to cope and thrive socially and emotionally. Over the next year Born This Way Foundation will continue to offer innovative approaches that promote these skills and provide young people with support where, when, and how they need it.

There are barriers here that must be overcome. For instance, many states’ youth mental-health policies limit online or text-messaging help. Thus, advocating for more-efficient service delivery methods (i.e., telehealth, text lines, and online support) across the world must be the next frontier for any organization hoping to truly impact the social and emotional well-being of our youth.

No one action by any one organization or person will make the world kinder or braver. But Born This Way Foundation is determined to work with young people to start making a difference, where and when they need it.

Susan Swearer, Ph.D., is currently the chair of Born This Way Foundation’s Research Advisory Board. She has been a high-school special-education teacher for students with emotional and behavioral disorders and has worked as a licensed professional counselor with children, adolescents, and families in residential treatment, inpatient, and outpatient settings. She is a professor of psychology at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln (UNL) and a licensed psychologist in the state of Nebraska, where she was the director of the Nebraska Internship Consortium in Professional Psychology for seven years. She is currently a supervising psychologist in the Counseling and School Psychology Clinic at UNL and the founder of the Empowerment Initiative.

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A Year in Review

As 2014 comes to a close, we at The Empowerment Initiative would like to thank our supporters and partners for helping us move the needle in translational research by bringing our research findings to teachers, parents, students and adults who work with youth. In working with schools, churches and community organizations, we’ve helped advance the use of research and data to reduce and end bullying and mean behaviors among youth and young adults. Continue reading

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Bullying is “Out of Bounds”

Bullying is “Out of Bounds”

Bullying is “Out of Bounds”

At the Empowerment Initiative, we’re constantly seeking new opportunities to inform the public about the many causes, consequences and forms of bullying. For this reason, I’m especially excited about upcoming performances of “Out of Bounds,” a Working Group Theatre play centered on cyberbullying.

Coordinated by the Lied Center for Performing Arts, performances of the play will take place Nov. 6 and 7 at North Star High School in Lincoln, Nebraska, where I’ll have the privilege of taking part in post-performance discussions.

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