Mar 152013

Mark Bernstein has an interesting post about cyberbullying. His solutions are interesting because, although he doesn’t say this, they imply that the current problems with bullying are connected to problems with established norms on the Internet.

The first is:

Anonymous posting is a bad idea. Sure, it’s got a theoretical place in the Democratic Nature Of The Web. And we could give up everything that’s good about the Web in defense of anonymity, in which case we’re going to have AOL and HBO and no Web. Lack of anonymity won’t stop bullying, but it will let observers get the context and help them find the kids in the ditch.

Maybe the nastiness on the web won’t go away (read: “disappear” or “go to a corner”) if names are attached to what people do, but the internet plays a huge roll in how kids are socialized today. How adults are as well. Humanizing that space will improve the quality of the socialization it offers. The effects will be felt far outside the virtual worlds of the web.

The second suggestion may seem as if it has little or nothing to do with the Internet, but it does. It’s reach is much wider though. Bernstein writes:

Discount childhood achievements and errors. Since bullies will punish missteps, we have to find a way to blunt the bully’s impact. Mistakes are embarrassing, but we can defuse their consequences. As a society, we’re going to have to agree to simply ignore the achievements and blunders of kids. Did you publish a book of poetry at 17? We don’t care anymore. Did you get naked and dance on the table of The Four Seasons at your coming out party? Old news. We don’t want to hear about your football triumphs or your high school grades any more than we want to see your refrigerator drawings. (This means the end of high school sports beyond recreation and exercise, which would also be a very good thing.)

If you want to be on the Internet–visibly as something other than a user–you must offer content. Because most of us are not artists, that means we offer up ourselves, most obviously by Facebooking the details of our daily lives. Two things result: we create a detailed record of our past that is perpetually present (i.e. always here, never past), and this record–created in realtime without reflection–becomes who we are. It maps a past and charts our future. Who or what we might someday become is weighted down and interpreted by this record which says: this is who we were, are and will be. If we were (are, will be) bullied (or a bully), what hope is there for us? The way we use the Internet is turning problems into trauma by making incidental actions into identity.

Bernstein’s third suggestion addresses this problem obliquely by responding to a question many of my students have: how do I become–and know that I have become–an adult? I tell my students they are adults–they are after all 18–but they don’t feel as if they are and are not expected to act as if they are. At most, their adulthood is a state, arrived at passively, demanding nothing of them, that confers new privileges (few of which seem very new or even worth exercising). Unsurprisingly, most of the teachers and administrators in my college talk about “the kids” not “the students.” Bernstein hits the problem square on its head:

A right of passage makes a lot of sense here. The fundies have that spooky silver ring thing, but we really need some dramatic way to say, “All the things you did before, that was growing up. Yesterday you were a kid. Tomorrow, you are no longer a kid: life is not a rehearsal, and it’s time to put childish things on the shelf.”

Adulthood is not (or at least should not be) a state we arrive at. It is a role we shoulder we cannot cannot initially (ever?) fulfill or live up to. A rite goes a ways toward showing this, and yes, it might address bullying. Why not? More broadly, I think it would also address the malaise (and, yes, despair) shackling so many of my students. What rite? Well, to let go of childish things today means letting go of our online selves, especially for recent generations who have come of age in virtuo. We could draw a curtain of shame between now and between someone’s childhood–not talking about it anymore than we talk about the stink they left in your bathroom before dinner–seems like a good (but alas unlikely) possibility. Imagine being embarrassed by someone so clueless they talk openly about their childhood or the smell of their poo.

Find Bernstein’s piece here. I think he may be responding to “Defining Bully Down” by Emily Bazelon. This op-ed in The New York Times has had people talking across the blogosphere these past few days. Find the op-ed here.

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