Thursday, October 7, 2010

Living and Dying Digitally

Since the “It Gets Better videos have started coming out, I’ve been watching them a little obsessively, alternately crying and being proud/thankful for the bravery of each individual who has made one. All week, the issue of cyber-bullying has been on my mind, as reports of suicide after suicide appear, all because of rash actions that can’t be taken back. Here are teens choosing death instead of enduring the slurs of these cyber-bullies, which are really bullies on digital steroids. Robo-Bullies.

Today, my friend Heather posted this article and that’s when I finally kind of lost it. I tried to file at work: I couldn’t concentrate, I couldn’t alphabetize, I couldn’t wait to just get back to my desk and write. This girl, this thirteen-year-old girl, killed herself because of one silly mistake she made, trying to get a boy’s attention. A mistake that she made which was logged on a cell phone, the privacy of which was not respected, which made its rounds everywhere, until she couldn’t escape one stupid thirteen-year-old mistake.

If Facebook existed when I was in elementary school and high school, the likelihood that I would have offed myself is vast. I was artsy and nerdy and there wasn’t really a way for me to escape or process people talking about me. Children are merciless, we all know this…especially at this time when they’re all the most sensitive and they’ve figured out how to make fun of each other but haven’t yet mastered the wisdom of the apology or the maturity to admit when they’re wrong. Now, these children have Facebook. They have Twitter, they have email accounts, they have YouTube and what’s better—they can generally do all of this from their smart phones. They can do it anonymously. Not just in a passed note, but in a format which will stick around until someone deletes it. Even then, some other little snot has probably saved it to their hard drive.

The technology available to our young people today is staggering and they’re given almost no guidance on how to use it or the damage it can do. Now, I love the Internet. Really, I do. It’s done a world of good for me. It’s opened up our world in ways we never could have imagined. It’s also damaging our world in ways we didn’t foresee: the disconnects we have, the information overloads we see in skittish adults, and this increasing problem of our nation’s children who don’t have the resources to deal with this new type of harassment.

A girl who gets called a “slut” kills herself. A boy who gets called a “fag” decides it’s not worth it to go on. What does the world lose? Not only a unique spirit, but our whole future—kids who could have cured diseases or made lasting works of art, gone. Gone because of a group of idiots who have new ways to harass others. The bullies on the playground become the bullies making Facebook groups, the bullies staring into their phones and posting…and so begins a new permanence of childhood follies, kids who can’t escape the things said about them. Maybe ever.

Dan Savage is right. It does get better. It gets better for everyone: gay, lesbian, trans, straight, questioning, geeky, artsy, weird, socially awkward. It gets better when you make it through to grow up. I have a lovely life now, filled with an amazing fiancé, astoundingly supportive friends, a good job, a bright future, an artistically fulfilling present. Would I have had that if the Internet existed in the form it does now when I was in school?

I honestly don’t know. I don’t know how many friends I would have lost, either.

I am not a mother and I don’t intend to become one, but I’m scared. The wires and tubes around us have us living in a world where nothing is private anymore and our kids are growing up in that world. They’re coming of age in that world. They need you to talk to them, mentor them, shepherd them through all this bullshit. They’re living their lives on screens. The girl in the above article never told her parents about what was happening to her. Would kids laugh at classes about net safety or net bullying? Would it matter to them?

This is the germination of my thinking on this—but there has to be a new paradigm.