Another day, another story on the supposed dangers of social networking, especially for young people. This one is on “Facebook depression.” The American Academy of Pediatrics is now urging parents to be mindful of cyberbullying and says the endless stream of grinning pictures and “OMG my life is so awesome!” status updates could harm young people suffering from low self-esteem. But my usual skeptical stance with regard to any story that implies social networking changes human nature was not budged a bit by this one. On the contrary, I think that social networking may in fact be providing new information that could help kids who suffer because they are shunned and bullied in school.
For instance, the CBS news story says that reading Facebook updates and looking at pictures “can be more painful than sitting alone in a crowded school cafeteria or other real-life encounters that can make kids feel down”. As someone who was a well-bullied child and teenager, I strongly doubt it. There’s no opt-out when you’re sitting alone in the cafeteria or a school bully has you cornered against the lockers and is molesting your or dressing you down, but online, even the geekiest geeks can click over to a forum where fellow travelers are speaking about the things they like. Quoting teenagers who have no memory of life before the Internet isn’t particularly useful, either, as CBS does: ” ‘Also, it’s common among some teens to post snotty or judgmental messages on the Facebook walls of people they don’t like,’ said Gaby Navarro, 18, a senior from Grayslake, Illinois.” I don’t know about what’s going on with kids these days, but it’s not like people didn’t say that stuff to you in the pre-Internet era. They just said it to your face, often gathering a handful of yes men to back them up, and again, there was no escape.
Cyberbullying is no different than regular bullying, with one giant exception: now there’s a record. Now parents, teachers, kids who play like they’re oblivious, and other adults can see how vile the things that kids say to each other can be. Now we have a record of how ostracized some kids are, and how the popular kids use cruelty to reinforce their social status. Now the problem is harder to paper over and ignore, because it’s staring us in the face. Feminists figured this one out a long time ago. The greatest weapon that rapists and domestic abusers have over their victims is the conspiracy of silence, and the greatest weapon to stop the violence has been to expose it to the light of day. I think the same is true of school bullying. Now that we see bullying for what it is, it’s much harder to pretend it’s not a problem.
Honestly, I think social networking is one reason that there’s been so much attention paid to bullying lately, and why we’re getting responses like the White House Conference on Bullying Prevention . The silence is being broken every day in little ways, as parents are seeing what kind of things are written on Facebook pages, and stories are written about bullying that employ the public record that was created of the bullying on social networks. Without these resources, I think it would have been much harder to drive home how nasty bullying can really be.