A debate: Is cyberbullying inevitable, or can parents stop the tide?
If we are to learn one thing from the story we’ve been discussing, it is that both bully and victim are now immersed in a media torrent that leaves little room for privacy. This, of course, is no new discovery, but it is one, I believe, that remains largely baffling to parents, educators, and other figures of authority who are a day too late and a generation too old to grasp the full meaning of this tempest.
The social dramas of teendom now unfold in chatrooms and profiles and text messages, which makes it a bit strange to rage against one brash lawyer for forcing his daughter to keep an offensive video posted online. If anything, said gentleman may have inadvertently stumbled onto a greater emotional truth, namely that removing a video from YouTube could never calm the tides of a roaring, hypermediated communications sphere made up of intimate disclosures and revealing messages. When your average teenager continuously shares the most private details of his or her life in 140 characters or less, asking to remove one bit of film, no matter how hurtful, is like sticking a finger in the dam: very bad for the finger, and meaningless to the dam.
Parents, you write, should teach their kids to resist posting malicious content on the web. But malicious is what the web is about. While there are still bastions of thoughtfulness out there—we’re fortunate enough to be writing on one now—the medium lends itself mostly to snark and snide, to the intrusive and the unsubstantiated, to the frivolous and the ferocious and the fun. It favors the immediate and rewards the shameless with followers and fans. And while there is still a discernible boundary between the lighthearted and the vicious, that boundary is being eroded each day, too often with the consent of all involved. With every rant we hurl via Twitter, with every relationship ended via a Facebook status change, every time a thought or a feeling that should have been sublimated erupts into the ether, we’re slouching a little closer to Gomorrah.
It may be time, then, to wave the notion of lashon hara goodbye and realize that anyone growing up with friending and liking and tweeting would never again know the pleasures of a world in which privacy is upheld and gossip is localized. Rather than expect our children to adhere to growingly unrealistic rules of conduct, let us teach them instead how to use the tools at their disposal.
First of all, “figures of authority who are a day late and a generation too old”? Lucky for you we’re separated by the Internet or I’d hit you with my walker.
Surprise, surprise: I don’t agree. Technology doesn’t change everything. I presume that even as we wear jetpacks and order Rosie the Robot to do the laundry, we will continue to teach our kids not to walk up to classmates and call them ugly, spoiled, brat, slut—in person, or online. The medium changes; the message is the same. I know you think I’m tilting at windmills, and it wouldn’t be the first time. But we live in a world that would be utterly alien to, say, Jews on the Lower East Side in 1910, yet we still have values of family, community, kindness, tzedakah, good humor. We haven’t given up everything that makes us human.
And remember the real human cost here: Bullying, online and in person, hurts everyone. Here’s a new survey from the July issue of the Archives of General Psychiatry showing that cyberbullying is dangerous for the bully and the victim. Researchers at Turku University in Finland found that bullying victims were at increased risk for emotional problems, poor general health, recurrent abdominal pain, and problems falling asleep. But the bullies suffered too—they had higher-than-average rates of headache and greater self-perceived difficulties in life. They also had more difficulty concentrating and a higher risk of substance abuse.
The upshot: We teach kids to look both ways before crossing. It isn’t hard to teach other basic rules: Think before you text. Don’t put things on Facebook that’ll get you negged by a future employer. Don’t send an email you wouldn’t want Grandma or your principal to read. Don’t give out your home address online. It’s basic education for our New World. And, hey, be kind, in every medium. As our old friend Rav Hillel said, “That which is hateful to you, do not unto another: This is the whole Torah. The rest is commentary.”