In 1998 Monica Lewinsky’s world turned upside down as her young and foolhardy mistake became public and highly publicized.  Having an affair with the President of the United States is no small matter. The media took a hold of every bit of information possible and brought it through the new use of the internet to the public.  And then they released the phone recordings of Monica and her “friend”.

Having to listen to the recordings of herself had to have been so difficult.  “Stolen words” that she regrets but that no one would let her forget. Suddenly everyone had the right to her private words – the media shared it with everyone… why is that?  This was the first major story to invade the internet and begin a new trend.  Making our private information and dealings public without context, consent or compassion is exactly what we have online today. A picture, a recording, a video … nothing is yours alone, and once it’s posted it’s out there forever.  Except that now there is the added dimension of all of the commenting and sharing that was not around for Monica Lewinsky. People are so quick to judge without any real information except for a blurb or a single story.  And they can be harsh and relentless.

It started with reality TV, where we were brainwashed into thinking that people’s private lives (although slightly scripted) were entertainment.  But now the internet can make anything into entertainment – someone running into a pole is caught on a cell phone camera and becomes a Youtube sensation which is then picked up by the news and put on TV.  A mistake in a moment of inebriation becomes a fixed, forever presence on the internet which people view and laugh at and feel the right to comment on like it was a show on TV. Because they forget that the “protagonist” is a real person, who maybe doesn’t want to be remembered that way, and who certainly has more to their identity than a drunk person running into a pole.  

Young people suffer greatly from the humiliation they endure online, with the misuse of their private information and the public shaming online bullies put them through.  The difference between bullying and online bullying is that you can’t get away from online bullying – you can’t simply go home and be done with it. It is permanent, overarching and ever-reaching into every aspect, circle, and area of people’s lives.

Good digital citizenship is so important – if others (trolls and anonymous shamers) were treated the way they treat others they would not be so quick to try to destroy others.  What is so sad is that even people who aren’t bullies seem to enjoy reading humiliating news of others and viewing embarrassing pictures and private materials without permission of the original owner.  

We forget that these are people just like our parents, our children, our friends.  When people click on these negative sites they are perpetuating the sick cycle and encouraging more postings.  

It’s interesting that as I am reading about all of this, Amnesty International has just released a study they completed on women and how they are treated on Twitter.  You can read all about it on #ToxicTwitter. Amnesty went so far as to project the racist, threatening, degrading tweets towards women that they had uncovered on the headquarters building of Twitter.  The tweets are vile, and the concern is why is Twitter allowing these types of abuse to continue on their platform?

Ultimately the misogynist attitude is the real issue, but allowing it to be perpetuated on a social media platform as big and far-reaching as Twitter is only encouraging more cyberbullying.  Women should not be threatened for sharing their opinion. Many women in powerful positions are attacked online through Twitter, and many end up simply avoiding the site, since nothing is being done to stop the constant flow of hatred.  Why is this tolerated? What is wrong with our society???

Again, I believe that the anonymous factor is an issue – people might not threaten others and insult them if they had to sign their own name to that distasteful tweet.  

They have found that in English, they have 3000 words from an online contributor, they can identify 80% of people based on their manner of expressing themselves.  This is a new program which will help to control I suppose, and find dangerous trollers or internet bullies. So anonymous is not 100% safe anymore, and I like that.  There needs to be some accountability, and the fact that people can hide behind their online persona makes them bolder and meaner than they would be face to face.

Cyberbullying is “willful and repeated harm inflicted through the use of computers, cell phones, and other electronic devices” (Hinduja, S., Patchin, J., p. 11).

It is premeditated acts of hatred in my mind, degrading, humiliating, meant to hurt, demoralize and silence others.

Nicola Sturgeon, First Minister of Scotland, tweeted on Scottish Women’s Aid twitter account that “We should be careful about not letting [online abuse] affect our behaviour, nor should we shrug our shoulders and ignore it, because that contributes to the sense that [abuse] is acceptable, when it’s emphatically not.”  I agree with her that we need to stand up to bullies, and find the balance between not allowing their behavior to control us (haters gonna hate) – it is, after all, a sign of their own deficiencies and shortcomings – but also not make it comfortable for them to continue their violent and hateful behavior.

It is important here to recognize that abuse happens to both women AND men to be sure.  In fact it’s worth noting that girls are twice as likely as boys to be both victims AND perpetrators of cyberbullying.  (The Cyberbullying Virus) Boys typically will bully with their fists, and girls with their tongues. But minorities are always a target on social media, being labeled and abused simply for their perceived association with a minority group.  

I recently visited the Museum of Civil Rights in Atlanta Georgia, the home of Martin Luther King Jr.  It was heartbreaking to see the ugliness that stems from man’s twisted perceptions- the superiority disease brings with it so many ugly behaviors.  It is our species’ most unflattering and disturbing facet. This sense of being superior to another is played out daily in the rants we see on social media and the ease and speed with which people judge others online.  

If it is challenging for adults to deal with – even adult leaders – how much more impactful and hurtful is it to our youth?  They are the ones who experience it daily at school and through classmates. The fact that these online bullies don’t even realize they are doing something evil is worrisome.  Where are they learning about morality, kindness, empathy?

Dr. Janen Jovonen studies bullying and states that bullies need an audience to do their humiliating or intimidating, and often they are kids with social status.  It is a power game. Her research has shown that the effects of bullying are not as we thought, for victims to grow thicker skin, but the opposite is true. Children who are bullied become more sensitive.  Jovonen goes on to explain that if another child steps in to a bullying situation, it stops within seconds. It should be the same online. But very few children are willing to do this – perhaps they do not feel strong enough or equipped to take a stand.  Schools and programs now target the “bystanders”, the witnesses of the bullying, and attempt to help them to realize their power and their calling to make this type of behavior stop.

It is a sad commentary on our society that gossip and name calling get so many views and reads. Why is it we want to see humiliation?  Are we so miserable that we need to see others suffer to feel better? We need to see public shaming for what it is – the dark, cowardly act of a judgmental ignorant person who instead of spreading life is spreading death.  Shame kills – and our youth are the most vulnerable to this. The constant humiliation can and has led to suicide for our young, fragile youth. And those who don’t take their own lives still have scars from the traumatic experiences.  Sometimes instead of taking it out on themselves and trying the ultimate escape, they turn their hurt outwards and lash out at others. Many of our mass school shootings involve students who were marginalized and mistreated.

We can choose to show empathy online just as easily as we can show hatred.  Which type of world would you prefer to live in? We need to be generous in our judgments of others, because in reality there is so much we never know.

If I had unlimited resources to address this cyber bullying pandemic, I would bring talks like Shane Koyczans’ (see below) into every classroom, and have courses in elementary, middle and high school which focus on social-emotional growth and healthy relationships.  Brené Brown has a wonderful curriculum called Connections for example.  These are skills which are sadly no longer modeled on TV, rarely seen on the internet and with the decrease of family time, children are left with very few places where they can acquire these skills.  

Discussion circles are also a tremendous way to teach respectful communication.  Allowing students in small groups to view or read material focused on these human relationship skills and then talk about it in a safe environment is a huge step towards building empathetic youth who then grow into empathetic and insightful grown-ups.  Instead of making a snap judgement based on a 144 word Tweet, we can teach them to thoughtfully consider others opinions and dig deeper into subjects which impact them. This will bring about a generation that will move away from consuming the voyeuristic, degrading and shame inducing online bullying which is so rampant these days.

As Brené Brown, an esteemed researcher, author and expert on shame and authentic living, said: shame cannot survive empathy.  Practice it – for yourself and for others – not just in person, but on the internet.

Check out these sites for added information on the online fight for humanity and respect:

StopCyberbullying

ConnectSafely

To this day Project

What kids have to say about bullying and how to stop it

ProjectRocket

Sources:

(2009, February 05). Retrieved March 22, 2018, from https://youtu.be/gaDi7wA5Poo

(2013, February 19). Retrieved March 22, 2018, from https://youtu.be/ltun92DfnPY

(2013, March 08). Retrieved March 21, 2018, from https://youtu.be/sa1iS1MqUy4

(2015, March 20). Retrieved March 21, 2018, from https://youtu.be/H_8y0WLm78U

Hinduja, S., & Patchin, J. W. (2015). Bullying beyond the schoolyard: Preventing and responding to cyperbullying. (2nd ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.

‘Toxic’ Twitter is failing women by letting online violence thrive – new research. (2018, March 21). Retrieved March 22, 2018, from https://www.amnesty.org.uk/press-releases/toxic-twitter-failing-women-letting-online-violence-thrive-new-research