MIDTOWN — Ally Pereira was just 16-years-old when her on-again, off-again boyfriend of two years promised he’d get back together with her if she sent him a topless photo of herself via a text message.
That’s when the straight-A student’s life turned upside-down. Instead of keeping the photo for himself, the boy sent it around the school, shattering her reputation overnight.
“Everybody saw it: Parents, teachers,” said Pereira, now 21, of New Jersey. “It was awful. I was called 'ho,' 'whore,' 'slut.' I got threats."
She said some even stood on tables in the school cafeteria screaming ‘Ally Pereira is a slut."
“I was ashamed, humiliated, horrified,” she said. “Every job I went to, my boss knew about it. Friends’ parents — everyone."
Pereira and other young people gathered at the Times Center in Midtown Monday night to share their stories about the underside of social media at the city’s first "Cyberbullying Summit,” organized by City Council Speaker Christine Quinn.
The event brought together teens, parents, educators and dozens of experts to try to better understand the problem of online harassment and discuss some of the best ways to protect kids from the potential pitfalls of sites like Facebook and the constant stream of texts that many teens and tweens now send.
“When I was a kid you could find places to escape bullying. You could go home. You could find places where literally no one could bother you. That doesn't exist anymore,” said Quinn, who noted that because the Internet is so pervasive, bullying now happens “in more intrusive and abusive ways.”
Cyberbullying expert Parry Aftab said there are actually 78 different ways that kids harass each other online, ranging from hacking into someone’s Facebook account and changing their profile picture, to sending insulting or threatening texts or messages online.
“Cyberbullying happens all the time,” said student panelist Keiko Thompson, 18, who said she received threatening messages in high school from a fellow member of her step team.
And while bullying used to be limited to a certain group of teens, many who might otherwise have been considered victims are now using the Internet “to level the playing field,” Aftab said.
In addition to setting clear ground rules for their kids, Aftab told parents how difficult it can be for teens to come forward when they’re having problems. She encouraged them not to “freak out” if their children approach them with issues.
“They should listen instead of judging,” advised teen panelist Cynthia, 17, who said her peers once created a Facebook hate group attacking her that was only removed after a friend officially complained.
Aftab also advised kids to follow her “stop, block and tell” strategy, which involves asking the perpetrator to stop, blocking access, and then telling someone about the incident.
She also advised students never to respond to bullying. “Don’t react," Aftab said. "Don’t give them what they want."
For those in attendance, the summit was a unique chance to discuss a topic they're confronted with every day.
“It’s a rampant issue,” said Jacqueline Kahan, 24, who teaches special education to middle schoolers at the Upper West Side's Community Action School.
“I think it’s hard, especially for young adolescents, to fully grasp the gravity of what they’re doing and to put themselves’ in other people’s shoes," she said.
Harlem mother Martella Joseph, 53, whose son, Michael, 17, also addressed the crowd, said the summit was an eye-opening experience that made her realize the wide scope of what counts as cyberbullying — and that some attacks are even against the law.
“That was awesome. As a parent, I learned a lot of lingo and other things I did not know before,” she said, adding that she plans to take a much more active role now in monitoring her son’s activity online.
More information and tools regarding cyberbullying are available on the City Council’s new resource page here.