By: Nicole Milton, Training Manager
In recognition of Sexual Assault Awareness Month, I reached out to Joshua Webb from Houston Crime Stoppers Safe Schools to hear his expertise on strategies for prevention/staying safe in relationships, signs of unhealthy relationships, and any resources for help and healing.
Nicole: You work for the Safe School Institute at Crime Stoppers, tell me what brought you to this work (school safety/situational awareness)
Joshua Webb: I’ve always had a personal drive that comes from my parents. My dad’s a pastor and being around that, having that example of service, giving yourself to your community, to people that need it. My mom is from North Carolina, she grew up sharecropping on tobacco fields working hard to get her kids to where we are now. She always told me , don’t worry about paying me back, but pay it forward. It’s both of their influence, both of their messages that have driven me to this role- working with my community, working with kids. I also have a personal drive to be the influence that I wish I had when I was a kid. I had, of course my dad, wonderful influence, but I didn’t have many other black men. I had my first and only black male teacher in sixth grade. I didn’t have older brothers, older cousins, so I have a drive to be that influence that I wish I had, and all the kids and people that I interact with.
Nicole: You work with young people, you work with people who work with young people, and we know that they are up against a lot, such as cyberbullying and influence from social media. What do you think is the largest challenge our students are experiencing?
Joshua: They’re dealing with a lot, and I think part of it, is that everybody’s dealing with that is happening at different age groups. For example, I think the younger kids who this year might be their first year, in school, in person. Listening to teachers and counselors and parents who have children that age. there are just social/ emotional things that just haven’t been developed because they’ve been at home. So maybe just don’t have those skills, and that gets expressed in different ways, sometimes violent, sometimes isolation, not knowing how to develop relationships with their friends, classmates, and peers. I think it’s also the way that we were forced to live our lives on the internet for so long. For some of us there was a dependence and for a lot of us, or even an addiction to tech and social media. Young people in particular, struggle with that as well as we are fighting against big tech, the tech industry who have made their platforms intentionally as addictive as possible. Everything from the different notifications and the different, uh, so-and-so commented, so-and-so posted, the things that they do. I think that social media also capitalizes on that adolescent need for, for social gratification. That’s what the teenage years are all about is finding your identity, your community, and so, you know, kids are willing to do things they probably shouldn’t on the internet for that kind of social gratification, whether it’s bullying somebody else because it makes them look cool, makes them think they’re funny or sexting or participating in these dangerous TikTok challenges.
Nicole: So, finding a sense of belonging, and our need for connection with other people, and one of the most accessible ways to do that is with social media. What do you think could be done to help them successfully navigate their world, given these are the challenges that they’re up against?
Joshua: We must find some sort of balance, and I don’t want to say that all social media is all bad all the time. It allows us to find communities that we never would have before, to find belonging if we can’t find that at home or at school. Again, it’s about balance. There is the funny, the silly, the goofy section of social media, but there also needs to find a healthy outlet for our, our thoughts and our feelings and our emotions. Part of that is making sure that we’re not oversharing on social media because I think that is also where we get into some danger. Everything from the most innocent accidental stuff from posting a TikTok video with your school’s logo accidentally showing or, um, talking about the things that are going on in your life and thinking you’re talking to a group of your friends, but maybe there’s somebody that’s looking for that information to take advantage of you or bully you for it. I think, um, it is very easy to get lost in it and to not catch ourselves so maybe just trying to take a, a day off social media or a few hours at night and, and just being more aware of how it’s affecting us and making changes if and when we need to, so we’re not losing ourselves to it.
Nicole: You’ve talked about having grounding and balance, making sure you are aware of self. You also mentioned some situational awareness and some internet safety. Can you talk a little bit more about how situational awareness impacts navigating the internet because it is the world that we live in.
Joshua: When it comes to cyber safety, particularly for young people, it capitalizes on that need to be accepted and approved. But maybe the bad thing is how far some people are willing to go for that. We must make sure that we’re not talking about too much of ourselves. I give this, this cyber safety presentation to kids a lot and I’ll ask them,” If you’re playing your favorite video game online, whether it’s Roblox, Among Us, Grand, Theft Auto, or Call of Duty, and y’all play every Friday night for six months, and that’s your only interaction with that person. They tell you everything about themselves. They say, oh, I live in Austin. My grandma, my sister goes to a and m, whatever, right? Is this, is this person a stranger?” It doesn’t matter if I’m talking to third grade, eighth grade high school kids, it’s about 50 /50 that they say No, it’s not a stranger. I say that to say there is, not a full understanding of what a stranger is. I think when we talk about a stranger and stranger danger, we talk about that creepy guy in the white van. Right? But there are. Just as many dangers on these social media profiles. We know there are many people are out here creating fake profiles, pretending to be somebody else to get people caught up in a dangerous situation or pretend to be a boyfriend, girlfriend, whatever. Young people not being as suspicious as they should of people who give them a lot of attention online. That’s where a lot of the danger lies, there are people intentionally looking for children on the internet to take advantage of them. And if our young people don’t have the situational awareness, that kind of self-awareness they can fall for it. There can be some really, negative consequences on the other side of that for some of them.
Nicole: Do you ever get to talk to adults about cybersecurity safety? And do they have the same reactions as students?
Joshua: I do. I get to talk to parents and teachers about it. I was just doing a parent cyber safety presentation yesterday and with the parents, I get to go into a little bit more detail about everything that exists. They are able to express concerns everything from my son’s being cyber bullied on Xbox Live to , somebody recording their worst moment, intentionally trying to embarrass them and then there’s 10, 20 people with their phones out recording it and about to post it on Instagram . So both young people, and adults face the beauty and ugliness of social media/the internet. I like to talk to parents about the solutions that are available, such as different monitoring tools and also about having the conversation with your kid, “ X, y, Z is not appropriate” “We can’t tell people these things about ourselves.” “If somebody sends you a message saying this, what do you do?” . I think it is on us as adults to be able to model that for young people and to give them an example of how to use social media in a healthy and safe way.
Nicole: We are also in a world where we do everything online. We also date and meet people online. So, what are some tips that you give folks, whether they’re navigating in a virtual world or in in real time? What are some tips that you give them for being safe?
Joshua: We should carry a healthy amount of suspicion anytime that we meet somebody online and we have not met them in person yet. Consider the fact that maybe this person isn’t who they say they are. It can be anything from maybe lying about their job to lying about their age lying about everything about them. Until we can meet them in person, just carry a healthy amount of suspicion. Also taking that next step, being as careful as we can, meeting them for the first time in, in real life, making sure that we’re meeting in a public place, that we have our own transportation, just in case we need to leave immediately if they’re making us feel uncomfortable, and telling somebody about where we’re going, who we’re meeting with. You could their social media profile with friends, just so they know. We have to do what we can to protect ourselves to reduce our risk of victimization. Again, this means having a healthy amount of suspicion about anybody that we have not met or seen in real life.
Nicole: Okay, so let’s say now we’ve met the person, the first date went well, and we want to develop a relationship. What advice would you give to someone to make sure that you are being involved in a healthy relationship?
Joshua: I think the most important thing for me is go at your own pace, and considering social media, there is a lot of pressure to have a relationship that looks a certain way. That you should do certain things because you think you have to, I think it’s incredibly important that you go at your own pace. Some people are slower, some people are faster, and don’t feel you have to do something that you don’t want to do to appease your partner. Hopefully, if that person actually cares for you, the way that they say that they say that they do, they’ll respect that. They’ll hear you say, I’m not ready for that. I don’t want to do that yet, and they’ll back off. I think it’s when we set that boundary, but that person keeps pushing. They say, oh, well what, what about that? Or what can we try this? Or they try to find a way through or over or around the boundary. I think that is absolutely a red flag. If we tell somebody I don’t want to do X, Y, Z, and they keep pushing, it’s a warning sign. You should consider having a conversation, but if that conversation doesn’t work, maybe we just need to end that relationship where it is. Possessiveness is another indicator, there’s, there’s a line between jealousy and being possessive. All human beings feel jealousy, and that’s a normal emotion. If you allow that jealousy to cause you to become violent or to um, cause you to try to control every aspect of your partner’s life again, I think that’s when we’ve gone too far and I is it it’s a conversation, maybe it’s couple couples, therapy, whatever it is. Maybe again, we just need to end the relationship. The last thing I’ll say is the power dynamic. Who is making the decisions in the relationship when it comes to everything from who are we spending time with, to how are we spending our money to, how do we spend time together, right? Making sure that decisions and, and the power is equal and fair, and that there’s not one person in complete control all the time.
Nicole: Are these tips applicable to young people as well as adults?
Joshua: Absolutely. And I would even encourage adults to have that conversation with your friends. “Hey, I’ve noticed your partner talks to you disrespectfully” “You have bruises, you have scratches. What’s going on?” As adults, as friends, if there is something about another friend’s relationship or life that is concerning, I think that’s our duty/responsibility as a friend to check in and ask if they are okay. We should remind them that we’re here for them whenever they need it, but again, not pressuring them to do something that might put them at more danger, at more risk.
Nicole: Where can those who have experienced or friends of those who have experienced sexual assault seek help?
Joshua: There are a lot of different reporting hotlines that exist: The National Sexual Assault hotline (1-800-656-4673), RAINN (Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network) (800-656-4673), and Crime Stoppers, which operates reporting completely anonymously. There are Crime Stoppers locations nationally, and here in Houston, there are three different ways to report. You can call (713.222.TIPS (8477)) use our mobile app, or report online (https://crime-stoppers.org/). If you are going through something and you need to let somebody know, but you don’t know who you can talk to, there are a lot of different anonymous hotlines, online chat, and communication features that victims and survivors can use.
Nicole: Are there any other mental health supports that you would offer or advocate for people to seek out?
Joshua: I think I can never talk about just therapy enough. There is still a lot of stigma around just getting therapy, accessing therapy. And here in Texas, I think we ranked last in the country in terms of access to mental health services. A lot of us aren’t able to access those services, but I think if we are, if it’s affordable, if it’s, if it’s something that we can, can access, I think we need to, um, because again, if we don’t have somebody in our lives that we can talk to, to express our feelings, and even if we do, I think the, the value that. A therapist provides a safe space to talk about the things that are going on, provides some helpful tools to address what’s going on. Another way to support your mental health is finding healthy outlets, and find ways to cope with our life. I love being active. We should make sure to find things that we can do that we just enjoy, that bring us joy, that bring us peace, that give, bring us comfort, whether it’s knitting, crocheting, coloring, whatever it is, making sure that we embrace those things that make us feel good. We’ve got to find community embrace the people around us, and pour into our relationships . We have to talk about what’s going on with us. There are methods such as there’s talk therapy, group therapies, or community groups. We should find those resources and do really what makes you happy.
Thank you so much for your time today and providing the resources and actions we can take to keep ourselves and our community safe.