Thursday, March 10, 2011

Bullied in the age of the internet

I have found in most of my circles - social work, gender studies classrooms, feminist relationships with friends and partners, family time, and even in casual work relationships - that when we think we're over something or we've talked it to death, we have really only scratched the surface. Because we are asking the wrong questions.

One of the problems- or advantages?- of working with social media and the internet is that it keeps changing and evolving. Sometimes for the better, sometimes not. In the last few weeks while thinking about this piece I found myself thinking that cyber bullying perhaps isn't relevant, or anything that I can say would be repetitive. But the problem persists, so the discourse must also persist. When the act of a young person taking his or her own life becomes fodder for jokes under the guise of anonymity and lack of consequences, we must ask ourselves what this bit of "freedom" costs us. And more importantly, where does this anger and hatefulness come from?

 A quick Google news search of "cyber bullies" or "internet + suicide" yields a depressing number of shocking results. The incidences of self-harm as a result of internet bullying or intimidating are becoming public knowledge, and in many cases, it only seems to incite the ones bullying more. In the case of Natasha MacBryde's tragic death, many of her peers were still posting offensive remarks onto her memorial page. Other family members have been sent pictures of their deceased's bodies. The tales go on and on. The "why" is hotly debated. Is the internet responsible for the lack of empathy young people are showing, or is it just a symptom of something bigger? Is this anti-empathetic mindset something that has existed for generations but is exposed now that there is a virtually consequence-free venue to make these remarks?

I am inclined to think that the internet didn't magically create these monstrous occurrences. In the case of the white male patriarchy of the United States, our past is a bloody and entitled one. This total lack of connection and empathy between peoples in the same communities isn't a new problem (look at the treatment of any marginalized group, anywhere), and it is my opinion that learning to moderate comments on internet discussions and teaching etiquette isn't going to be any sort of long-lasting answer. Finding a more permanent solution, however, could have far-reaching benefits for everyone.

Instead, let's open the discussion. How do we teach empathy? Is it something teachable at all? Perhaps simply education is the answer.

I had been sitting on this piece for a few days when the White House held a conference about bullying, in which the President and First Lady offer some answers but mostly open up the discussion and start the problem-solving process. If nothing they said was groundbreaking, it was still good to see the White House taking some time for the youth of the country when there are so many other hot-button issues being discussed right now.

 Watch here:

Both our President and the First lady speak about engagement with young people, speaking up, and taking action, when it comes to bullying. What pleased me the most, however, was their insistence that adults take responsibility for what is going on. Whether we know why it's happening or we don't, whether it's worse or better than when we were all children, these cases that result in the deaths of young people are not just "kids being kids," and that is a cop out. Good on the our leaders for calling that out. Like they said, we've got a lot of work to do.


  1. Thanks for your post, Mary. This is timely and needs to be repeated again and again until we understand that the "so what" of all of this is the loss of our young people, the assets of our community, and those who represent the future.

    It is easy as a community to blame "bullying as a youth problem." Terms like "poor home training," or "this generation of immediate gratification," or even as you pointed out, it's just "kids being kids," is more about scapegoating than it is assuming our rightful place of shared responsibility.

    Responsibility for the increases in numbers of victims bullied, their severity of pain, and ultimate death, rests with us, the adults and the institutions we support, directly or indirectly through collusion. On any given news channel or blog posting, there are words used that cause people to feel marginalized and their voices silenced. We sanction hate through policies of exclusion and call it morality. Politics have become a game of who can spew the greatest hate and then we say, well, "that's freedom of speech."

    For me, as a veteran of one of the gravest, most ill informed wars, that was fought not to protect but to intrude, I did so because my country asked me. Each soldier, whether they believe in the conflict or not, serves at the pleasure of our commander-in-chief. I fought for many who claim their hate speech or bullying speech is a right. They do have a right...but with that right comes responsibility to understand that words, especially, to a young person, by another young person, must NOT deny the basic right of belonging and longing to be human.

    What our young people do is what they see modeled by the adults and the institutions around them. It is our responsibility as the caretakers of this country's freedom to ensure everyone has a place to feel safe and the opportunity to achieve their best. Thanks, again, Mary...Michael Freeman, USAF, 1970-1974.

  2. The internet is such a double edged sword for young people today. One the one hand it is a tool for information and social networking, which actually can open the world up a bit for those kids stuck in small towns with small-minded people. But the bad inevitably sneaks in with the good, doesn't it?

    I think parents are stuck in this awful quandary of not being quite as technologically capable as their children, and it's leading to our young people being exposed to unprecedented levels of adult information. I'm only 23 and I still feel ancient when I'm with my younger relatives. They are plugged in 24/7. There's so much technology that even if parents are interested and try to protect their kids from it all, and even if they know how to check up on their kids' Facebook and Twitter and Formspring...stuff will still get through. So for the kids whose parents aren't even paying attention, the internet can be a horrifying place.

    What's the solution then? Do we socially cripple our children by not allowing them to interact with their friends online? Do we deny them cell phones even though it is safer and more convenient to be able to reach them at all times considering how many activities kids have nowadays?

    It all just makes me long for my childhood. I didn't get a cell phone until I was about 16, and Facebook was only available to me once I got into college. I didn't need the internet because I went to the library to do research, and I carried change in my purse in case I needed to use a pay phone for an emergency. Even bullying was simpler. Someone made fun of your clothes, so you wore different clothes or you embraced being weird. No one was making a fake persona online to harass you with. No one was writing horrible things on your Facebook wall. No one was leaving a trail of hate on the internet.