Wednesday, April 03, 2013

My Typical Childhood = Today's Adolescent Nightmare

First published in The Oxford Journal on Wednesday, March 20, 2013 by Sara Mattinson.

Typical childhood memory: When 14-year-old Roger Ferguson found out that my middle name is “Mode” -- likely one of my friends ratted me out -- he made a joke out of it. With his buddies gathered around, he shouted “Mojo” at me as I walked down the street. This drove me crazy but it was something I had to deal with on my own. It taught me the futility of reacting to verbal taunts.  Once I ignored him, he lost interest. 
This is the value of confrontation. At any age, it teaches us something about ourselves but also about the people with whom we share our lives. Confrontation exists at every age in every environment -- kids fight about toys while coworkers take credit for someone else’s work -- and it’s normal, a necessary evil, if you will. We grow more confident, more knowledgeable because of it.
Here’s the thing: Roger’s teasing happened in 1981.  
Imagine what would happen today. Let’s say Roger Ferguson has 400 Facebook friends so he posts his mockery of my middle name there. Now instead of the joke being limited to his group of friends and my group of friends, hundreds of people are in on it. Many of them jump on the joke bandwagon, adding their own comments, some of which are mean, even degrading, because the writers don’t know me and that anonymity makes them feel clever and powerful. 
So instead of being annoyed and learning a lesson about thick skin, I end up humiliated, unable to face the kids at school the next day because the situation quickly -- at high-speed speed -- spiralled from teasing to harassment. I likely wouldn’t tell my parents about it and I likely wouldn’t be able to walk away from the source of my torment. 
Twenty years after Roger’s harmless taunting, there is a fire-breathing dragon called cyberbullying. That scares me more than being hollered at by a teenaged boy I barely knew because it’s so easy for people to hide behind a computer. Thanks to the Internet, people can now bully and berate, lie and mislead, mock and ridicule behind a username  or an outright fake identity. They no longer have to face the person on the receiving end, a person who is real and vulnerable and feeling very, very exposed. 
With the explosion of (and obsession with) social media over the last five years, bullying has become a whole different game, making it is more imperative than ever that parents exert their benevolent power and control over their children -- and their children’s online activities. 
Smart phones give bullies 24-hour access and an unlimited audience without ever having to face their victims. It’s the worst kind of cowardice and children need to see how pathetic and unworthy of attention the actions of this person are.
We need to empower children to believe that it’s okay to block someone, it’s okay to delete an account, it’s okay to say “Don’t tell me what they said. It doesn’t matter.” And truly believe it doesn’t matter. We need to get them through adolescence understanding that fitting in doesn’t mean taking abuse.
It’s not just a case of protecting a child’s personal information but also of setting and enforcing boundaries so that those children understand the difference between confrontation and bullying, truth and hypocrisy, real friends and social manipulators. They need to trust in the firmness of those boundaries (some might even call them “rules”) so that they can trust in the idea that they don’t have to take any crap from anybody at any time. 
Because bullies of any kind, in person or online, at school or at work, in the 80’s or in the 21st century, are what they’ve always been: Troubled people needing attention.
And perhaps a punch in the mouth. 
Because there are two ways to deal with bullies: ignore them or confront them. While I am from the school of ignore and cut ties, when bullying becomes physical, sometimes protecting yourself means hitting back. Ultimately, I’m from the school of sticking up for yourself and not letting someone take your life from you.
Because a kid has a better chance at surviving a fight than a suicide attempt.

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