SOMERVILLE, NJ -- Teenagers from all over Somerset County came together in Somerville Thursday night, Oct. 27 for a three-hour conference to discuss and dissect social issues they encounter daily like cyber bullying, Internet safety and the health of the environment.

Led by members of the Somerset County Youth Council, “Disconnect to Reconnect” was planned and executed by the students, with little adult assistance; it was the 21st annual conference hosted by the students.

The Youth Council has 30 members and pursues discussion of pressing issues within communities and potential solutions to such problems.

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Following opening remarks, “Disconnect to Reconnect,” split the 70 participants into two classes for two sessions. The first session consisted of “Destination Communication” with Natalie Sheik, Frankie Fazio, and Arnav Lakkavajjala, as well as “Byte Size Bullying” by Ishani Shah, Trisha Addaganti, and Aakash Rathee.

The classes were based heavily on student interaction, with group discussions being a common component. In “Byte Size Bullying,” a class devoted to a discussion of cyber bullying, the students were shown a Powerpoint presentation with statistics about the topic before playing a game of Jeopardy to test their knowledge. The activities then gradually turned into a talk about the effects of cyber bullying, and what individuals can do to help.

“Telling someone that you care, even when you don’t know them, means everything to them,” said Youth Council member Kevin Ju, who helped teach a class himself during the second half of the conference. Other solutions included alerting adults of such situations, and avoiding instances where authorities may, as attendee Manny Vidal added, “care more about punishing the bully than about the victim.”

Session Two was devoted to  “De-Cyber the Environment” by Kevin Ju, Jamie Moni, and Aneesh Kadali, as well as “Don’t Get Caught Up in the Web” by Aaron Phogat, Mukund Srikishan, Pranav Kalindhabhotla, and Vikram Srikishan. The classes were about reducing the carbon footprint people have on the environment and remaining safe when using the Internet.  

In “Don’t Get Caught Up in the Web,” some of the specifics covered were avoiding the release of personal information, cat-fishers, and “phishers”-emails that appear normal, but are in fact spam. They also conducted an activity in which yarn was thrown from person to person until it formed a web, which represented the connections people gained through texts.

Sarah Murchison, who has been working with the Youth Council for 20 years, explained the program had originally started as an extension of other organizations; however, this changed after it became clear that students could not always be pulled from class to participate in programs and activities. Over time, the Council grew to become less administrative, and more focused on community service, according to Murchison.

The theme of this year’s conference was “The Chain of Caring Hands,” which Murchison had said was affiliated with the American Cancer Society. Before dismissal, all the participants were given a reflection sheet to detail their thoughts on the experience-and add their own contributions regarding what could potentially be covered in the future.

A true young leader, Murchison said,  is “willing to get involved.”