#IamJada: When abuse becomes a teen meme

— 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.

Giving thanks: Rituals for remembering

— One day after Thanksgiving last year, my mother, brother, cousin and I gathered in my 87-year-old grandmother’s room at the nursing home. We knew it would be one of the last times we would see her alive. She knew it, too.

“I don’t know when, I don’t know how, I don’t know why,” my grandmother Mary said that day. “But I know one thing. God is going to take me home. He’s going to take me home.”

Home is comfortable: warm like a hug and familiar like the smell of my grandmother’s seasoned greens. But so often the ease of intimacy slips into taking our loved ones for granted.

It’s what crossed my mind as I listened to her that day. What didn’t I know about her life? What had I not said? How much of this moment would I remember?

Grandmother Mary had not been able to sit at the Thanksgiving table that year, confined to a bed as she recovered after a medical procedure. We visited her on Thanksgiving and afterward to bring home to her.

Two months later, she was dead.

We knew that she knew how much we loved her. We made sure of it. But there is still the absence of an everyday presence that requires adjusting — slippers found that bring back a story and smile, a song or smell that triggers a forgotten memory.

For decades, our family had incorporated a friendly inquisition into our Thanksgiving gatherings, much to the amusement of guests. Friends, neighbors and travelers joined us, an ever-changing mosaic of characters.

But a few traditions stayed the same.

There would be an element of service — volunteering at a soup kitchen, preparing meals to share, hosting those without homes, a visit to the less fortunate.

And of course, delectable, savory food: sweet potato pie, yummy stuffing paired with cranberry sauce, gooey macaroni and cheese, luscious candied yams, soupy greens and warm, buttered rolls.

I loved it all.

But my favorite part of the meal had less to do with what we put in our mouths and more with what came out of them.

We are a communicative family, but Thanksgiving always provided a special time to vocalize for what, and for whom we were grateful, and why. Around the table we went, naming the people, places and opportunities that we appreciated that year.

It was an exercise in acknowledgment — and patience. The lists could be long.

My grandmother often had the longest list. She had a lot to be grateful for, and this year, these rituals will take on even more meaning as we hope to honor her life, and each other.

Giving thanks

We start the meal with a prayer of gratitude for blessings past and present. The affirmation sets the stage for the appreciation of what we have, where we are and who helped us get there.

Tell loved ones why you love them

It’s often taken for granted that those closest to us know that we love them. But it is always nice to be reminded why. No matter how old we are, my parents still get excited when their children return for a visit. We kids like to roll our eyes, and sure, it can be a little embarrassing, but we love it. To have accepting parents that are demonstrative of their love — no matter their shortcomings — never gets old.

Let loved ones get to know you

What’s great about family is that they know you. What’s frustrating about family is that they assume they know everything about you. It is the inevitable tension that comes with being known but still yearning to be discovered.

In the past few years, our family added a new question to the Thanksgiving discussion: What’s on your bucket list?

My very grounded and sensible brother surprised us all when he shared that he wanted to skydive.

Another mentioned a dream to write books, though they had worked in social work their entire life.

The lovely surprise about this question is the novel things learned about those that are familiar: an opportunity to get to know who we think we know best all over again.

Share how you want to be remembered

After the loss of our grandmother, this ritual will resonate even more this year: we share how we would like to be remembered.

Perhaps because how we perceive ourselves can be different than how others do, this tends to be the most revealing and a window to how we might experience one another.

“Where we aim isn’t where we always hit,” my mother likes to say. Thus, those “encouraging” reminders may be taken as nagging. “Keeping it real” truth-telling can be experienced as criticism. Displays of affection can be seen as smothering. When all along, it might be that the intention was in the right place and simply misinterpreted.

When we are gone, loved ones can only relive encounters with us via their memories. It can be hard to put into words, but sharing how you want to be remembered — and living it — is a gift to loved ones in the time we have together now.

How would you like to be remembered?

“As a family man,” my dad shared.

Family, dear friends and cherished memories are what I will be remembering at Thanksgiving this year — and what I hope to not soon forget.