Eye-opening article from the New York Times: The Internet Gives Teenage Bullies Weapons to Wound From Afar. (Go to bugmenot.com if you want to avoid registering.)
Part of the problem with Internet technologies is that the kids tend to know much more about them than their parents do. Consequently, adults often still have outmoded ideas as to what sort of adolescent pressure is affecting their children, and how they can help them cope (that is, if they even feel the need to). Add to the seething cauldren of Sturm und Drang the perceived disassociation and lack of physical confrontation, the assumed anonymity of email, the pervasiveness of peer-to-peer sharing, the semi-permanence of Instant Messenging logs, and the spread of blogs and forum postings, and you have a potentially lethal mixture for long-lasting mental scars and even suicide amongst teens.
Parents, teachers and administrators should be aware of the main issues (only some of which were mentioned in the article):
- The title of the article is perhaps a bit misleading: the term “bully” carries a certain stigma and mental representation, that of a large lad in a playground pushing around weaklings and stealing lunch money. In fact, anyone that can use a computer now, regardless of physical, mental, social or psychological capacity, is a prime candidate for being a bully. In short, almost every teenager. In a way, the tables are turned somewhat: the traditional “weaklings,” “nerds,” and “geeks,” are –at least stereotypically– far more likely to be able to orchestrate the sort of things this article is referring to, or at least take them to a higher level. However, almost every child past the age of ten with access to a PC should be able to use these methods with little or no learning necessary.
- Girls in particular are more likely than boys to avoid direct confrontation when dealing with their peers; consequently, indirect technologies like IM and email are more frequently used to provoke, intimidate or seek revenge. Clique-driven pressure can be taken to dizzying heights using the Net.
- Boys, however, possess a more direct and asocial way of communicating their thoughts through the medium, which causes different problems. Words that would normally be stifled by fear, inconvenience, physical intimidation or sexual awkwardness are easily typed into a webpage or message and sent.
- Almost anything you do on the Internet leaves behind traces, some permanent. It is very easy to say something in an online chat that is recorded and easily forwarded to one’s peers. And it is just as easy to “edit” the transcript to make it appear that they say something different than what actually happened. Teens would often much rather believe something sensational than not.
- Any teen can pop over to Blogger and get a free blogging account. In this sort of online journal, you can say whatever you want to the world, with little regard to consequences. The same applies to online forums and multiuser chat rooms.
- Because you are disassociated with the persons on the other end of the email or chat, it is easier to disregard how you are making them feel. You do not see their face, nor do you hear their voice, and you don’t even know if they are receiving your message at the same time you send it. It’s like leaving behind a time bomb that leaves no physical damage, just psychological. Worse yet, if the person responds, it becomes far easier to become engaged in an ever-escalating and mentally abusive interchange.
- A couple of years ago, the “Star Wars Kid,” an overweight and awkward Quebecois teen left some video footage in his school’s camera by mistake. In this, he played out a fantasy Star Wars Jedi fight. His “friends” discovered the footage and posted it to the Internet. The video was remixed and re-edited numerous times, adding light sabres, sounds, special effects, villians and other Star Wars paraphenalia, and it was spread over the Net, causing a very embarrassing worldwide (albeit short-lived) sensation. He was tormented endlessly. Now, imagine a young girl forwarding some masturbation footage or a “special picture” to a boy (as mentioned in the NYT article), and he decides to spread it to friends, who spread it further. Within a day, it can reach every corner of the Net, not to mention all the students in the school she attends. How could she walk in through those doors in the morning?
- Nowadays, a message can reach you anywhere. At any school computer, at your home computer, on your cell phone, on your pager… there’s no place, no time, that you are not available to receive a communication. Imagine what those messages can say, how damaging they can be, and how often you can get them.
- Remember that with instant media, there is no consideration or cooling off time, that immediacy carries every action without forethought, every reaction without reflection, every deed without deliberation.
- Peer pressure urging conformity is just one potential (mis)use of this technology. Sexual advances, revenge and reprisals, cruel or sensationalistic stories to combat boredom, cyber-stalking, cheating on exams and assignments, discrimination based upon race, class or creed, and any other motivator in the realm of teenage angst is grist for the mill.
- Remember that teenagers can do all of this away from the prying eyes of parents or teachers, and rarely do they let them know about it. It’s a secret world.
I’ve been doing a lot of thinking recently about what sort of thing can be done about this. It’s easy to say, “Well, we have to educate our children!” But this is such a recent development that guidance counsellors and teachers are ill-prepared to do this, yet alone parents. “Parents should pay more attention to their children’s Internet activities!” Well, teenagers usually know so much more about the Internet than their parents, not to mention that Internet connectivity is everywhere: there is no way to shield children from all the possible effects, nor could most parents understand how to do this anyway. (For example, many kids can easily get around “Net Nanny” and other network guardians, and can probably even lock their parents out if they wished.) And ignoring the problem, hoping that teens will deal with it on their own, is not an answer: the effects can be disastrous if left unchecked.
What’s necessary is a wide-spread awareness and education campaign instigated by government and academic institutions, with separate sessions and documents for teenagers, parents and teachers. I feel that in ten years or more, everyone will be more naturally predisposed towards handling the aforementioned problems, but for now, it’s a potentially devastating issue affecting teenagers caught in the flux that is modern technology. How can we empower our youth with such constuctive tools, and yet not teach them the responsibility and wisdom needed to resist the sometimes-overwhelming urge to use them destructively?
I’d like to put some more thought and research into potential strategies towards identifying and dealing with this problem. I’ll post them here at a later date.