November 14, 2012

the power of words

It’s Anti-Bullying Week / Bullying Awareness Week this week (November 12-17).   It’s an initiative that began in the U.K., a place that seems a lot more proactive when it comes to issues of online harassment and cyberbullying.

Like so many of you, I was sad and angered to hear about what happened to Amanda Todd, the teenager who committed suicide after aggressive bullying (both off- and online) from her peers.   The whole story is wrapped up in many troubling issues —not least of which is the double standard in our society that simultaneously encourages then punishes female teen sexuality — but no matter how you look at it, what happened to Todd is a tragedy. 

To mark Anti-Bullying Week, the 49th Shelf has posted great an Anti-Bullying reading list for kids and young adults.  

This month, my stepdaughter’s school is cooperating with McGill University’s Define the Line to study child awareness of online bullying, and I’m glad because they really couldn’t be learning it a minute too soon.  Kids of ten and eleven are already going online – even just to retrieve their homework assignments.  There are school-assigned email addresses for kids who don’t have personal accounts, and children send each other emails all the time.  It’s easy to imagine how one (just one!) cell-phone photo combined with an email forward could effectively ruin someone’s life…or at least make it very, very difficult for a few years.  I’m so afraid for the kids who will be growing up with Facebook.  I love social media, but it’s just an extra, tricky dimension to add into an already difficult high school experience.    

I was very active on the internet, such as it was, at thirteen, and I interacted with all sorts of people (some of whom I still know) on IRC and IIRC and newsgroups and BBSes, but I think I was lucky that none of my peers were on the internet at the same time, or at least not hanging out where I was.  I’m relieved that there were no such things as webcams back then.  

More than ever, it’s important to teach kids how to tell the difference between appropriate and inappropriate online behaviour, both so that they can stand up for themselves and for others, but also so that they know when their own behaviour crosses the line.  Harassment, stalking, bullying…none of these things are that many steps away from what we think of as more or less normal childish and adolescent behaviour (teasing, crushes, cliques, gossip)…but all of these behaviours hurt people, and all of them become a major problem if they are not left behind in childhood. 

Adults are the victims of bullying, too, and I know now from personal experience that online harassment can have a major impact on one’s sense of security and liberty, peace of mind, and quality of life.  But I’m grateful, as least, that in twenty years (wow!) of being online, the ongoing harassment I've been experiencing for the past 22 months -- via Twitter, email, comments to this blog, etc. -- has really been my only negative experience.  I’m grateful, too, that I’m not a vulnerable teen, and I know better than to put any stock whatsoever into bewildering and hateful messages sent by a stranger or acquaintance.  And I’m grateful that I have good friends who support me through the rough times.  I only wish all victims of cyberbullying and harassment were so lucky. 

As a writer, I spend most of my time trying to use my words carefully and with consideration.  This week, let’s teach our children to respect themselves, each other, and the power of words.  Sticks and stones AND words can hurt, and words on the internet can stick around for an awfully long time. 


Lina E. Gordaneer said...

Thanks for this Saleema. I am in the middle of giving talks on social media and privacy with the students at my school. It has been very interesting to discuss what they consider bullying. Have too much to say in one post as I feel the issue goes way beyond just concerns about the behaviour of our youth on the net but about the warped ideas of what should be censored and how it should be censored by the peer group. Too often I hear that if a girl does this well she deserves that. I would like to have a long, sustained conversation about the internal misogyny that is one of the major causes of harassment between girls.

saleema said...

Lina, I know you've spent a lot of time thinking and working through these subjects. The next time we meet up for a non-writing discussion, I'd love to talk about how you're navigating all these tricky topics with your girls.