When my stepdaughter was fourteen she got into vlogging. She was good at it too. She was engaging in front of the camera, showed a passion for script writing and a flare for editing. She seemed to enjoy the whole creative process. We were incredibly proud of what she was producing, as was she. The vlogs covered issues ranging from growing up as a mixed-race teenage girl, to having same sex parents, to feminism and a nigling worry of growing old alone as a crazy cat lady, among many others. The positive comments made her feel as though her efforts were worthwhile. Feedback suggested that she used humour and satire to address topics that were pertinent to young people. There were things she needed to work on but she knew this and regularly asked followers (and family) for suggestions for improvement. Criticisms were constructive and her work improved. We got over our initial embarrassment at being the butt of a number of her posts and were happy that she was using her time online for something other than Facebook. Her site was gaining hits, she was happy.
Then came the trolling…
A few students from her classes whom she didn’t particularly get on with during the school day got wind of her chosen pastime and decided to participate in the critique of her work. The trouble is, they weren’t interested in her vlogs, they were merely intent on the assassination of her character. The fact that she had given herself (and them) an online stage meant that she was fair game. They used all the usual excuses, they were just trying to establish the facts, if you put your opinions out there then expect to have them challenged, it’s all in the pursuit of the truth, if you can’t take the criticism then don’t post opinions. The list went on and on, becoming more and more personal as time progressed. Amid cruel comments about her physical appearance, her self-righteous attitude and her raving feminist approach, our fourteen year old became very depressed and gave up a hobby that she had thoroughly enjoyed, one which was giving others like her some comfort in their own similar situations. As parents, we took an objective but supportive approach to her predicament. We asked her to consider what she could learn from the experience and encouraged her to be reflective, resilient and to keep on vlogging. She is resilient and reflective but she refused to give way. It was the end of her internet social commentaries, the experience dealt a huge blow to her self-confidence and personal well-being, one which meant she wouldn’t voice her opinions outside of her comfort zone for the foreseeable future. What a shame that she had so much to contribute but was silenced by a continual and unrelenting barrage of abuse disguised as critique.
As a teacher I see children experience this same kind of attitude every day, whether it be in person or as a result of online communication. Generally, the people who do the trolling or bullying describe themselves as telling it like it is or saying what everyone else is thinking or just being honest. This is how they justify cruel behaviours that leave even the most resilient young people feeling broken, alone and alienated. We challenge the behaviours in school, we sanction the perpetrators in a hope that they will learn from their actions and reassure the victims that it is not their fault. We explain the importance of ignoring intimidating behaviour, of not giving in to bullies, of staying strong, of rising above it. We’ve seen the devastation that callous actions can cause and as advocates for young people we do our best to act as protectors and model the behaviours that we want them to adopt…
But do we?
Most of the people I follow on Twitter are educationalists, people who are passionate about teaching, people who care about children. They inspire me to want to be a better teacher. What I do find saddening is the bickering, back-biting and in some cases out-and-out bullying that seems to be rife in the Twittersphere at the moment. Surely this is not the behaviour we would allow to be commonplace in our own schools? Surely as parents we would be horrified if our children were the victims of such cruel words? Surely we would discourage young people from using social media if they were receiving a stream of personal attacks? Surely we would be mortified if any child we were responsible for was participating in such cruel behaviours? And yet, it’s there, among us. Daily. Different victims but generally the same voices. Their defense, to use self-deprecation in order to gain some kind of justification for their scathing attacks I disagree so I’m therefore now using ad hominem?! Is it wrong that I’m just trying to establish the truth?! They trawl their timelines for examples of when they have been badly done to (generally out of the context of an ongoing disagreement). Failing that, there’s always the what qualifies your opinion interjection, the where’s your research to support that discreditation or my particular favourite, my degree’s bigger than your degree card. Are these people actually reading what they are writing or thinking about how they are making the person on the receiving end of their tweets feel? Do they care? They wear the badge of being purveyors of the truth when clearly they are assassins of personality. Certain members of the online community only need log on and tweet about the most innocuous of topics and attract scathing abuse with little or no reason. And yes this happens in some groups of people in the real-world, yes this is a sad fact of life and we need to learn to deal with it but it doesn’t mean it’s right and it’s certainly not ok to let it go unchallenged.
Also, it’s important to look at why you use social media and the internet. It’s a great place to share ideas, offer new perspectives and challenge the way people think by listening and adding to. However, if night after night you’re getting into the same arguments with different people and using the same excuses as to why this is the case then the problem is maybe your approach? Perhaps you may be better suited in a combat class at the local gym because holding on to all that anger is no good for anyone – go let it out. Treat yourself, you’ll feel better!
We are all guilty of gossip at times but we do need to take a long, hard look at ourselves and think about what we are communicating to others. Would we accept it in our professional capacity? Would we be happy for our children to be on the receiving end of such behaviour? Would it be acceptable in the staffroom? Let’s not perpetuate the curse of the schoolyard bully. Let’s rise above it. Perhaps it is time to think about what we want to achieve? Perhaps it’s time to delete that response or comment before it’s shared? Perhaps it is time to model the behaviour we would want to see? Perhaps it is time to take a view through different eyes.