What To Tell Kids When Adults Behave Terribly Online

What to Tell Kids When Adults Behave Terribly Online
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If 1967 was the “Summer of Love,” this summer just might go down in history as the “Summer of Hate.” High profile examples of online cruelty, shaming, bullying, and more have littered the public water cooler of our day—social media—and it’s been a particularly brutal summer.

Here’s a quick review:

  • Leslie Jones, star of the summer movie Ghostbusters, becomes the target of racist and misogynistic tweets and quits Twitter.

  • Adorable 20-year old, three-time Olympian Gabby Douglas is attacked on social media for everything from her hairstyle, her stance during the national anthem, to her facial expressions.

  • “Blamers and shamers” rush online to pass judgment on the parents of the two-year old boy snatched by an alligator at Seven Seas Lagoon at Disney World.

  • And then, of course, there’s not-very-presidential candidate Donald Trump’s use of Twitter to liberally to berate, belittle, and bully just anyone he doesn’t like. As journalist Nicholas Kristof writes in “Donald Trump is Making America Meaner,” Trump has “unleashed a beast and fed its hunger, and long after this campaign is over, we will be struggling to corral it again.”

The ones who will suffer most from the beast that’s been unleashed are those who use media most—kids, as they spend more time engaging with media than they do with any other activity other than sleeping. Our only hope is that they spent more time playing Pokémon Go this summer than watching the online shenanigans of their elders. Otherwise, we have a lot of work to do repairing the damage.

A study recently conducted by the Southern Poverty Law Center finds that online hate is having a tremendous impact on students:

Every student, from preschoolers up through high school, is aware of the tone, rhetoric and catchphrases of this particular campaign season. Students are hearing conversations at home. They’re chatting, posting and joking on social media. Whether teachers decide to bring it into the classroom or not, kids are talking about it, modeling their behavior on that of political candidates and bringing heightened emotion to school along with their backpacks.

The worse part, particularly for those of us who work in classrooms trying to preempt and combat incidences of cyberbullying and other poor online behaviors, is that “the gains made by years of anti-bullying work in schools have been rolled back in a few short months.” According to the study, “Teachers report that students have been ‘emboldened’ to use slurs, engage in name-calling and make inflammatory statements toward each other. When confronted, students point to the candidates and claim they are ‘just saying what everyone is thinking.’”

In the forthcoming book, SHAME NATION: Preventing, Surviving, and Overcoming Digital Disaster, (Sourcebooks 2017), author Sue Scheff provides much-needed tips on navigating these online minefields. But in the meantime, kids watching need and deserve our guidance now.

So here are six ideas to help mitigate the damage of a “Summer of Hate” upon our online kids:

  1. To borrow and somewhat morph the wise advice of Michelle Obama, tell kids, “When we go low, you go high.” In other words, be forthcoming with young people regarding how despicable adult behavior can be online. Say, that while it’s no excuse, most adults did not grow up with the Internet and when we use it badly it is an example of our naïveté. Tell kids that we have faith they will use these tools better.
  2. And, speaking of tools, please stop calling them “bad” or “evil.” Many an Internet expert has issued lists of “dangerous” apps, advising parents to delete them immediately from their kids’ phones. This advice fails to recognize that it is behavior that is bad or dangerous, not an app or website. Deleting the offending tool or service doesn’t make bad behavior go away, it simply moves it elsewhere. Besides, there is plenty of evidence of bad behavior on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter and none of these tools are going anywhere soon.
  3. As Matt Soeth, of iCanHelpline for schools recently wrote, “There are great role models out there, I just hope kids are paying attention to the right ones.” The promise of the Internet is that it can be a place where our best selves collaborate, connect, share, and lift each other up. Show examples of this to kids, such as this one: After being criticized herself online, Leslie Jones jumped in to defend and support Olympian Gabby by starting the #LOVE4GABBYUSA hashtag on Twitter which has since snowballed into an avalanche of support for the athlete.

  4. Remind “like”-seeking kids that positive content has proven to be much more viral than negative content. Additionally, tell them that posting positive content will improve their online reputations, which will pay off in spades when they apply to college or look for a job.

  5. If you prefer to view the glass as half-full rather than half-empty, then this summer has been full of wonderfully teachable moments. In “Stage-Crafting Politics: Media Literacy Tips for Kids,” ShapingYouth.org Founder Amy Jussel provides a treasure-trove of resources to engage students in modern day “civics.” Jussel writes, “Students need to make sense of this hot mess… ‘teaching moments’ about the stage-crafting of politics will sharpen children’s critical thinking skills now more than ever.” For my own part, I like to conduct lessons that teach students how to craft and post online comments, reminding them that even commenting on the posts of others contributes to their own “online reputations.”

  6. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, the tidal wave of bullying that has been on display this summer negates the last 15 years of fighting bullying in school. We must address this when kids return to school this fall, with lessons, conversation, and peer-to-peer activities that focus on kindness and empathy. An excellent resource for this is, UnSelfie: Why Empathetic Kids Succeed in Our All-About-Me World by Michele Borba. In her book Borba provides actionable techniques and strategies on increasing empathy amongst youth, all grounded in the latest research.

Just last week Monica Lewinsky, no stranger to bullying herself, penned a powerful article in Vanity Fair about Daniel Fitzpatrick, the 13-year old boy who tragically took his own life after being bullied and humiliated. Lewinsky writes,

In the past month we’ve asked, how many Leslie Joneses, Gabby Douglases and Jessica Valentis will need to be cyberbullied by online mobs and—in two of these instances—go off social media for a time? And over the past few days, some of us who have reacted to Danny’s story found ourselves asking, “How many kids will die as a result of bullying? How can death by suicide become the only perceived option left?”

In her article Lewinsky implores, “We need to do better.” She is right. Sweeping these all-too-public examples of online hate and cruelty under the rug cannot be an option. We must address these incidences head-on with our kids, in school and at home, or suffer the consequences as they grow into adults.

Hopefully, we can say goodbye to this “Summer of Hate” and usher in a new season of online civility and kindness. It’s going to be a lot of work, but well worth the effort.

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