In sixth grade, I was the victim of bullying. Looking back, I can kind of see why: I was unassuming, not terribly self-aware, I wore chunky black wraparound glasses that reflected my parents’ values of function over form. Not that this excuses the bullying. Thank god, though, that at that time the “internet” was accessed on a 14.4k modem that you used to login to a unix terminal and check email using pine. You couldn’t get into Facebook wars or anything of the sort. The bullying stopped when I came home.
That’s not the case these days. The Internet and cellphones mean that teenagers are always connected – to their friends, and to their bullies, and we don’t know what to do about it – call parent meetings? File lawsuits? Danah Boyd tells us: “No amount of legislation requiring education is going to do squat until we actually find intervention mechanisms that work.” Ah, intervention. In other words, trying to solve a problem after it happens. But as Boyd herself acknowledges later in her article,
The issues here are systemic. And it’s great that the Internet is forcing us to think about them, but the Internet is not the problem here. It’s just one tool in an ongoing battle for attention, validation, and status. And unless we find effective ways of getting to the root of the problem, the Internet will just continue to be used to reinforce what is pervasive.
“Getting to the root of the problem.” In other words, we should find the cause and prevent the problem before it happens. So how do we do that?
Boyd gives us a place to start. In her research she found that
Bullying was when someone picked on someone or physically hurt someone who didn’t deserve it. I’d ask how they knew if someone deserved it and the response was incredulous, “oh, you know.” So I pushed harder… “what if you don’t know?” I asked. I got blank stares so I took a different tactic. “What if someone’s messing with someone and that other person thinks they’re being mean?” This got their attention, but not in the way that I expected. Most told me that you know when someone is messing with you and that if you don’t, you’re stupid.
So teenagers can’t recognize other points of view or see how their actions are affecting others, because if they could, they wouldn’t think that someone getting upset at being messed with was “stupid.” In other research, Boyd expands on this further:
Not only are most young people often ill-equipped to recognize how their meanness, cruelty, and pranking might cause pain, but most adults are themselves are ill-equipped to help young people in a productive way. Worse, many adults are themselves perpetuating the idea that being cruel is socially acceptable. Not only has cruelty and deception become status quo on TV talk shows; it plays a central role in televised entertainment and political debates. In contemporary culture, it has become acceptable to be outright cruel to any public figure, whether they’re a celebrity, reality TV contestant, or teenager awaiting trial.
So teenagers act like this because many adults do. I’m not surprised. How do teachers help teens break this attitude when the adults in their lives model that exact attitude all the time? It seems like a losing battle – one that requires radical solutions.
Don’t model ethics. Teach ethics.
As teachers, we’re always told to model good values and behaviors for our students. But how often is it that students get to see us in “authentic” situations? We’re perpetually interacting with them in an academic context, dealing with few of the real-life situations they deal with outside the classroom. So what’s the use in modeling ethics if we’re never going to actually be in situations where we can model it – especially the kinds of interactions that Boyd describes? In Korea, schools have a moral education curriculum throughout all grade levels that has at times included “Moral judgment and moral discussion…rather than moral inculcation.” Yes, there are classes where students are TAUGHT what is moral and what is not. Autocratic? Outmoded? Not suited to our students? Maybe. But Boyd’s writing demonstrates that our students do not know morality.
Now in all fairness, Korea has its fair share of bullying problems as well. So having ethics or morality classes is not some panacea. But it does at least allow students to acquire the knowledge of ethics. Then we need to work on the application of that knowledge. Now if teachers are ill-suited to do this because we don’t see students in authentic situations, who is left? A group that is rarely mentioned in the discussion about the responsibility for a child’s education:
And the problem is that while everyone has heard of some anecdote about lovely children coming from awful parents, there’s a larger body of evidence out there that the quality of parenting directly influences the outcome of the children. As George Carlin said, “Garbage in, garbage out.” Judging from recent parental reactions I’ve seen to accusations of their children cheating, I’m going to say that in the case of repeat bullying and other immoral behavior, the parents are often just as one-sided, defensive, and close-minded as their kids.
Alright, I’ve pointed the finger like every polemic should do, but I haven’t really offered a solution. As Boyd says, the problem is “systemic.” Which means that it needs to be dealt with as a system. This makes the old argument for the school to build a community. If the parents, teachers, students, and admin are all regularly involved, it makes it easier to pick up the phone and talk out a problem rather than mete out unilateral punishments that result in court cases. And when you do that, I think you realize that it’s not an issue of controlling technology. It’s an issue of raising empathetic, conscientious children.