I keep reading blogs, comments, or op-ed pieces that keep asking “why didn’t Amanda Todd’s parents know what was going on?” (You know, as if they didn’t know when they helped her change schools, or comforted her after one of the many vicious attacks, or when she had previously tried to hurt herself).
Stop it. Please.
I don’t know what the answer to stopping bullying is, but I can assure you that it isn’t victim-blaming the parents. Yes, her parents are victims. They’ve lost their daughter. What else would you call them? Yes, there are parents that we need to talk about in this situation, but it’s not them. More about that later.
A couple of nights ago, when I learned about Felicia Garcia, the young woman (15) in New York who took her own life, I was having trouble wrapping my head around her story (very little then, and there are still things that aren’t making sense as details emerge, but that’s another issue). They had included a link to her Twitter account, as the day before her death, she had tweeted “I can’t, I’m done, I give up.” So I went and looked through her Twitter profile, and through the profiles of some of the people that she was following or had mentioned/retweeted to see if I could understand why this had happened.
And I suddenly remember just how much it sucks to be a teenager.
I think it’s really easy to forget (or maybe block out) just how awful teens can be. The messages they tweeted to each other were awful (rude, demeaning, etc.). The worst part was that it wasn’t people they liked that they were calling names, it was even in their interactions that they have with people they call “friends”. When I went through some of the other profiles, I was shocked by some of the stuff that was on there. Don’t get me wrong- I know that teenagers are going to smoke/drink/have sex/do drugs etc. What surprised me was how open it all was. And the bigger issue? It was all under their real names!
See, when I was in middle school, everything was about usernames. You had to have an original username. But more importantly, you knew that you couldn’t have a username that traced back to you in some way (with a name like mine, that meant keeping my real name out of it completely). So to a certain extent, I think it was easier to stay hidden. Facebook changed that. Now it’s not just an option, but encouraged to use your real first and last name (and a picture of you, and link it up with your twitter, pinterest, instagram, and any other number of social networking sites). Anyway, the point is, that’s where a lot of this bullying was happening for Amanda (and many others). So even though we talk about the problem with internet communication being anonymous, there’s nothing I saw that suggested that that’s why no one did anything about the bullies (they just needed to log on to see proof!)
Some of this content just contained bad spelling or grammar. But there were also some that contained references to doing drugs, potentially illegal activities in which they had engaged, and some really inappropriate language (I’m talking about calling each other names like r****d, f**, and n*****.).
Now we can get to the part about parents. If there were ever parents you want to get upset with for the cyberbullying situation, what about the parents who are either purposely unaware or don’t care when their kids are posting horrible messages in cyberspace? Why didn’t anyone step in there, before anyone died?
What about the kids who were posting hate messages after her death? While Facebook has tried to take them all down, I went into the most popular Amanda Todd group, and there was a post from a young man who had posted “Saw you tits on the Internet,I wonder how they got there.* one of lifes bleachable moments*”.
Why am I telling you this? As a case study in just how easy it is to call someone out on this behaviour. So I went to see what I could find out about this punk. I found out he’s in high school- I know where and when he’s supposed to graduate. I know his profile picture was updated today. I know that he’s friends with an older sister who I have to admit that I was kind of tempted to send a message to.
His name isn’t the point, so I’m not going to post it. But he’s certainly easy for anyone in his family to find and see what he’s up to. (FYI, there are some things on his page that I hope would come as a shock to his parents). We’re constantly calling on parents to make sure that their kids aren’t doing anything to put themselves in danger, but I haven’t heard anyone call on parents to generally check what their kids are doing and saying on the internet. Unfortunately, it’s no longer an option- it’s become a necessity.
But it’s an actual, ongoing conversation that needs to happen. Right now, whatever we’re telling kids isn’t working. It’s like when we try and tell women “don’t get raped” instead of telling men “don’t rape”. Instead, we’re telling kids “don’t give out any information that could get you picked on” rather than “don’t bully”. It’s not just if you’re afraid that your child is being bullied that you need to talk to them. The reality is that the internet is here to stay, and it has increased access to various areas of previously personal life and they need to be aware of how to stay safe and aware.
I’ve been thinking a lot, trying to figure out how to keep bullying from happening. Yes, social media and cyber communications have had an influence on it, but it’s not new. Let’s take comments on pictures, for example.
You know how there are those pictures that people put up of themselves (and if it’s a profile picture, you know it’s a picture where they feel like they look good) and peers make ridiculously rude comments? It happened without facebook too. As I have previously mentioned, there was one time I had gotten a new haircut that people were giving me a lot of compliments about, and I was actually kind of feeling good about myself. The bully took it on herself to go around asking everyone she knew about it, and told me by the end of the day “I’ve found three people who say your hair looks awful”.
Or, there’s the other kind of picture where someone’s looking for reassurance about something- and they’ll put comments like “OMG, I’m so fat” or “I’m totally getting a nose job when I’m 18”? And instead of reassuring her, they’ll say “you are, lardass”. Again, this happened before facebook. I distinctly remember one girl in my grade 6 class talking about her appearance. I can’t remember what she was saying, but she was complaining about something in her looks, and I said something about not liking something about myself. (I was trying to sympathize). She got quite pissed off, turned around and told me “don’t do that so you’ll get compliments. You won’t.” I told her “Don’t worry. . . I know I’m ugly.” She said something to indicate that she agreed with me, and it was left at that.
Do I have either of those in writing? No. But do I distinctly remember parts of those incidents like yesterday? Damn right.
So what do we do? I know there are people who support banning any use of computers that aren’t in public areas. But I don’t think that’s a reality any more. For one thing, the bullying happens in e-mails and on sites where it’s not unusual to find kids talking. So it’s not going to change anything whether it’s in front of you or not- why would you find it weird to see your son/daughter on facebook? The other thing is, these forms of communication are increasingly becoming the norm. In an interview on The Current on cyberbullying, one woman said that her child had to make a facebook page because the child’s teacher sent out homework that way. So banning it isn’t all that reasonable.
I was listening to one of the comedy talk stations Fox Radio on my way home the other day, and this host was incensed because he’d gotten a call from the school, saying that his daughter and two of her friends (I believe they were 10) had taken a picture and tried to e-mail it out when it was intercepted by the school’s firewall. (Mind you, it an wasn’t inappropriate picture. And as it turns out, they were sending it to the Romney campaign to show their support- so the host said he couldn’t be too mad). Anyway, he was demanding to know where the teacher was in all of it- how was it possible that they could have been unsupervised for that long that they could have done such a thing? Why did they have access to computers where they could do something like that? Well, I’m willing to guess it would take me 90 seconds to do something like that (and that’s because I’ve never actually tried using the camera on my current phone). Try as we might, we can’t police them all the time. There are always going to be kids with smartphones, and girls are always going to go to the bathroom together. It’s an impossible situation to police.
The bottom line is, something has to be done to teach kids to learn to use the internet and social media carefully. And that means that parents have to keep on top of what’s popular, and where teens are talking. Sounds daunting? Absolutely. I’m not great with social media, and I gave up before Reddit. But there are places to help (for instance, check out A Platform for Good. There’s also a section for teens and teachers, but I think it’s especially good for parents). It has a lot of good information about the current popular social media (whatever’s getting popular enough that you need to know about it), blogs on how to use the internet effectively (to reduce bad and to increase good), and conversations to have with your kids about the internet.
I know, it’s easy for me, a student with no kids, to tell parents what to do- right? I’m not pretending to know what it’s like to be a parent in this generation (or at all). And it’s not just your responsibility. I think everyone has a responsibility to have these conversations about internet and media literacy. I know there are people reading this that don’t have kids (at least not old enough to be too worried about this right now), but you do have teens in your life- cousins, nieces, nephews, neighbours, friends kids, whoever. You have a voice, an influence, and you can be that force in someone’s life too. As corny as it sounds, there are teachable moments everywhere. I read a great opinion piece on how parents can use Amanda Todd’s video to start conversations about what’s going on in their teen’s life, not unlike parents used the “It Gets Better” project to start conversations with their teens about sexual orientation, bullying, and suicide.
And in preventing bullying? There’s a lot you can do there too. Where I did my undergrad, they took a strong stance on using inclusive language. There were tons of words that were off limits. But. . . it wasn’t about punishing those who used the words, it was about educating them about why it wasn’t okay to use it. And there’s a very powerful lesson in the educating. One great example? Ann Coulter using the r-word. There were plenty of people who came out and criticized her very harshly. But the message that got through was a beautifully written open letter from John Franklin Stephens, which went viral (it has more than 6000 comments, and 10 000 shares on Facebook and Twitter each) (On a sidenote: if you haven’t read it, make that your next stop).
Parents, why don’t you try it next time you hear your child calling someone a slut? Ask them what it means. Challenge them on why it’s being used. Is it because of the way she dresses? (Shouldn’t she be able to dress however she wants without living in fear?) The things she says? (What does it even have to do with anything?) The things she does? (Isn’t that the beauty of living in a society where women have the ability to consent?) Or is it simply because being called a slut is the worst, most hurtful and demeaning thing that you can call another girl at this point in their life? And it truly is- it’s a way of, among teenage girls, simultaneously saying that she’s unwanted, unattractive, and completely worthless. It’s not about sex, it’s just about hurting someone else.