(WASHINGTON, DC) – With the Christmas season rapidly approaching, in many households across America, new iPhones, iPods, Kindles, laptops, and other electronics top the lists of scores of children’s’ and teen’s wish lists. And with the wide availability of these various devices and means of accessing the Internet, it is no surprise that over 93% of teens ages 12-17 go online; that over 73% of these teens are on social networking sites or that over 97% of this age group play web, computer, and other online games, according to a 2010 Pew Internet and American Life Project titled “Social Media and Young Adults”.
The wide and often-easy access to the Internet however, also means that danger is just a few clicks – or a single swipe – away. And according to a 2013 Pew Internet Research study, over 47% of the 78% of cell phone-owning teens own smartphones.
Keeping these staggering statistics in mind, one must consider the rise of tragic bullying incidents over the past several years that permeate the news headlines, along with the rise in technology use. As a public relations professional and a parent who daily monitors news websites, and knowing that “if it bleeds, it leads”, this trend is both alarming and disturbing.
What happened to the old adage, “sticks and stones can break my bones but words will never hurt me?” With the ever-increasing use of technology as a means of communication, and in the often angst-ridden world of kids, the unfortunate effect of words – or embarrassing photos – published on a social networking site or via text message forever leave an electronic footprint which can not be taken back, and have the effect of permanency than verbal taunting – while also brutal, inappropriate, and certainly not to be tolerated – does not have. And with the explosive popularity of social networking sites and corresponding smartphone apps such as Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and Tumblr, those words can spread like wild fire and result with tragic endings that did not have to happen.
Bullying, of course, is almost a rite of passage for most – if not all – young people and has been around since the beginning of civilization. There are indeed numerous examples in popular culture of bullying, whether it’s Diary of a Wimpy Kid’s main protagonist Greg Heffley, or the cattiness often seen in many of the Real Housewives franchises ending in table flipping or wig-pulling. Bullying is a routine part of both popular culture and real life since the start of civilization.
However, the rising incidents of cyberbullying – in which words and/or photos spread in a matter of seconds with the intent to taunt the victim – have driven many young people to tragic results:
– In 2012, Audrie Potts was driven to suicide after sexually provocative photos and vicious comments were shared via social media.
– Phoebe Prince committed suicide in January of 2010 after brutal, relentless bullying via text messages and social media, even after her death.
– Rebecca Sedgewick jumped off a tower in September, 2013 after former friends tormented her via and told her “you should drink bleach and die” among other cruel comments.
– Megan Meier hung herself in October, 2006 after being told by a fake MySpace friend that she was fat and ugly and other baseless, troubling accusations.
This is only a tip of the iceberg of a spate of cyberbullying tragedies that have been routinely appearing in the news in the past several years. But perhaps this is a result of a perfect storm which had been brewing for years prior to the Internet being the overwhelming media of choice for young people.
Could the frequent exposure of violence in popular media and culture be a contributing factor to the de-sensitivity of violence and cruel verbal barbs? Is it the often-promoted notion that young women must dress and act sexy to be socially acceptable to boys, increasingly aimed at a younger demographic? Or is it the popularity of vulgarity in various reality TV shows, in which the rudeness and sassiness of high-profile characters are looked upon as being cool and hip? Could it also be the often-promoted consumerism in media, in which acquiring the latest and greatest things trump values? I do not believe there is one simple answer, but perhaps a bit of everything above and other factors, namely the cultural decline of the American family, significant rise in the past several decades of single-parent homes and the decrease of participation in both civic organizations and church. [I shall note that there are many, many excellent single parents and numerous dysfunctional unions, but I digress.] Increasingly, among both adults and younger people, the use of social media is driven by the desire of engagement of their peers and logistically easier to participate with a few clicks of a mouth than actually participating in actual organized gatherings in the community.
The late Robert Shaw, M.D., author of the groundbreaking book, The Epidemic (HarperCollins, 2004) writes a cautionary note in light of the Columbine High School shootings and the tragic events of 09/11/2001 and serving as a premonition for later tragedies:
Like termites, the epidemic of problem behavior can silently burrow into your life and do great damage before it’s discovered. If we as parents don’t ‘train’ our children in constructive, safe, and expressive ways of operating in our society, their natural drive to connect with someone or some idea will lead them towards some of the most destructive behavioral manifestations. They’ll be ‘trained’ all right, but perhaps by wayward peers, gangs, the media, or radical religious cults.
Shaw also writes that parents have a responsibility to their children to set an example to learn kindness, empathy, and values:
Parents find themselves enslaved by a materialistic, overachieving society that leads them to spend so many hours at work and so much money that they can’t make the time to do the things necessary to bond with their children. They are worried that they might crush their children, stifle their self-esteem, or kill their creativity, to the extent that they lose all sense of proportion about the role of a young child to a family. They rarely put limits on their children or permit them to experience frustration, and they overlook their children’s moral and spiritual development. As a result, essential values like empathy, effort, duty and honor do not develop. And on top of that, they abandon their children to the influence of the media – children waste their time on such mind-numbing electronic entertainment as television and video games that their literacy, social development, and creativity are all inhibited.
Perhaps this is an eerie prediction years prior to the cold messages widely circulated online, showing a lack of empathy for Phoebe Prince, Rebecca Sedgewick, Megan Meier, and Audrie Potts.
As for my own children, I will not allow them to have a Facebook or Instagram account because they are not old enough (although that hasn’t stopped many from signing up for accounts). If/when they are allowed to do so, maybe in their latter teenage years, they will be heavily monitored. My son does not even know what Instagram is, and I do not plan on explaining it to him for a very, very long time.