Social & Emotional Learning (SEL)

Techno Prisoners: Musings on the New Bullying Paradigm

In the age of cyberbullying, a Stone Age tormentee looks back.

April 19, 2007

Seventh grade was the year my tight group of girlfriends got together and voted me out of the inner circle. They just walked up to me one day at lunch and hand delivered a note -- written on binder paper, of course, college ruled, folded into that particular rectangle of preteen origami. As they stood there, hands on hips and eyebrows lifted high in extreme "what-ever" mode, I pried open the note to find just one short slap of a sentence, Erasermated in bubbly girl writing: "We decided that we don't want you hanging out with us anymore."

I looked up, confused and stung, and they gleefully informed me that I needed to find a new place to eat. Like now? And then, as I scrambled to gather up my lunch, a seagull unleashed a great shiny green gift right on the crown of my head. That happened a lot at my school; between the mean girls (was it their jeans, two sizes too small?) and the seagulls (drawn by the sewage-treatment plant next door), kids got dumped on at Mill Valley Middle School with almost relentless regularity.

I don't remember much from junior high -- something about haikus, and Agamemnon, and the anal pores of paramecium? -- but that single lunch-yard moment still burns hot and bright. All I have to do, twenty-five years later, is close my eyes, and the exact queasiness of that horrible moment is right there. I have no doubt that mass public shunnings are just as popular in today's schools as they were in my day. In fact, it would seem things have gotten exponentially worse, because now the cameras are rolling, and the wide Web is waiting.

Camera phones are ubiquitous in schools now, ditto the Web page standing by to publicize whatever photos or movies get snapped. So now, when you, say, lose your tube top while attempting a cherry drop off the monkey bars, there's some kid standing there with a cell phone, clicking a picture of the lucky moment and emailing it to the school at large.

Or when you jump up two seconds early during the "down, down, down" part of "Rock Lobster," and everyone points and stares, their mouths gaped in gigantic "oh"s, now someone is there to film the whole thing and stick it on YouTube.

Or when your friends get together and vote you out of the group, you don't get a binder-paper note; instead, they organize the whole school to text bomb your cell phone with unpleasant messages, for which you're charged ten cents a pop.

Or they build a MySpace page with the sole purpose of letting every seventh grader in your school, not to mention the whole world, know just how much they don't want you hanging out with them anymore.

Legislators are trying to address these new, sinister strains of public humiliation with anti-cyberbullying bills, and student-advocacy groups are working to reeducate kids with "If you wouldn't say it in person, why say it online?" advertising. But when kids are unwilling to report online harassment out of fear of losing Internet access for the whole school (a surefire way to make a campus full of enemies), I'm not convinced these efforts will be effective, any more than the "This is your brain (this is your brain on drugs)" ads did in the '80s. However much the authorities tighten up the internets, a few kids are going to wiggle their way through and find ingenious new ways to reject and embarrass each other.

Maybe the technology of humiliation has improved so much since my day that it's not worth fighting, and we should follow the lead of parent Kathleen Gardner, who has opted to home school her daughter, Olivia, after the fourteen-year-old fell victim to multiple MySpace tauntings as she attended a series of schools. (She transferred more than once to try to escape the harassment, but they just kept following her.)

Or maybe kids will just learn to tough out these new, supersonic levels of humiliation. As terrible as it is, the butt end of public shunning does have some unexpected upsides: Being forced to hang out by myself introduced me to an independence that still serves me, myself, and I very well as the three of us hit bars and movies without the need for an escort.

The experience also gave me empathy for all the other sad sacks and loners, and even one poor kid named Frodo (I know), who spent all of junior high getting hacky sacked on a regular basis. So maybe getting toughened by having their shame-dripped foibles and ostracizations publicized all over YouTube and MySpace is only going to make kids better, stronger, and faster than they were before. And maybe this new, super-resilient strain of kid will make the world a better place?

I don't know. Any kid of mine will be hitting middle school a long fourteen or fifteen years from now. And my hypothetical mother's heart shrivels at the thought of the new, horrible ways kids will be demoralizing each other in that future. Will their avatars be condemning each other to cyber eat their cyber lunches alone under the rain of cyber seagulls? Will kids be tormenting each other in outer space? Or maybe by then the mean gene will have been eradicated, and junior high will have been transformed into a fluffy meadow of otter sighs and sugar lumps? If anyone's collecting votes on the matter, put me down for future number three, on a tightly folded binder-paper quiz, with hand-drawn boxes next to each option.

Evany Thomas is the author of "The Secret Language of Sleep" and the blogger behind "Extended Cake Mix."

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