Viraj Puri, a 13-year-old from Herndon, watched his older brother come home from middle school three years ago beaten down physically, mentally and emotionally by bullying.
Still in elementary school then, Viraj had few options available, but he knew he needed to take action. So he decided to put his love for technology to work. Now in middle school himself, Viraj has built an online hub for anti-bullying activism.
“My brother and I, we’re really close to each other, but at that time he felt alone,” Viraj said. “He would lock himself in his room. It really inspired me to help any other teen who was going through this, and this is a way I know how to help.”
More than 50 percent of Fairfax County public school students reported having been bullied in the past year, according to a survey conducted during the 2012-13 school year.
At the same time, more than 40 percent of students reported bullying someone, according to the Fairfax County Youth Survey, which polled more than 35,000 eighth-, 10th- and 12th-grade students.
“One way or another, people have been affected by bullying, whether it’s their family, their friends, themselves” said Viraj, an eighth-grader at Kilmer Middle School. “It affects everyone.”
“All his negative energy and the anger toward the kids who bullied his brother, he transformed into positive energy,” said his mother Aparna Puri.
So over the course of a year, Viraj created the website Bullyvention.com to inspire his friends, classmates and others across the country who have been affected by bullying to push for change. The website debuted last April. On it, he focuses on getting people to write letters to their local members of Congress, pushing for a top-down approach to the bullying problem.
Still, what makes the site work is its personal core. Viraj writes blog posts standing against bullying. He has met with members of Congress, including members of the Anti-Bullying Caucus, and posts videos of himself interviewing them about their own connections to bullying.
Viraj said the website has also pushed him to hone his skills in technology. He spent a year designing and working on the Web coding for the Bullyvention website, his passion for the anti-bullying cause lending him a focus he may not have had otherwise.
Now, he is pushing that further with the newest tool to debut on the website: a virtual map of cyberbullying, using information culled from social media sites.
The tool, which Viraj refers to as a cyberbullying “heatmap,” aims to show which areas of the country have the highest level of social media activity related to bullying.
The map ties back into the main goal of Bullyvention. Viraj believes if people see bullying is happening in their area, they will be more motivated to try to stop it. The map’s purpose is not only to identify problem areas for cyberbullying but to expose the ubiquity of the social media attacks.
“It can be easy to say, ‘It’s not in my neighborhood,’” Viraj said. “But it is.”
While the map is still in a testing phase, Viraj is continually fine-tuning it. A researcher at the University of Wisconsin is helping Viraj develop better methods for searching for posts for those that are actual cyberbullying attacks. Right now, many of the “hits” it generates are response from victims or news reports about bullying, not the actual instances of bullying.
Also, Viraj only has access to the small amount of data social media sites make freely available, severely curtailing the abilities of the map. But if his Bullyvention campaign continues to grow, he hopes that social media companies take notice and even cooperate with his efforts.
“There’s more that can be done to solve bullying,” Viraj said. “We need everyone’s help.”