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Month: August 2013

Cyber Self-harming

This week I am sharing a guest post by my colleague and friend Nina Funnell which first appeared in The Age. In this Nina attempts to make sense of alarming new findings which suggest teens (girls in particular) are engaging in digital self-harm.

 

In recent weeks, media outlets around the world have reported on the tragic case of Hannah Smith, a 14-year-old girl from Leicestershire, England, who committed suicide, after receiving cruel and harassing messages – including to “drink bleach” and “die” – on the social media site Ask.fm.

Critics of the site have urged parents to keep their children off it, saying that the anonymous question/ answer format leads to harassment, stalking and bullying.

Now the case has taken another tragic turn. In an inquiry into the matter, Ask.fm has uncovered that 98 per cent of the abusive messages sent to Hannah came from the same IP address as her own computer. Only four of the abusive comments came from other IP addresses.

While there are still a lot of unknowns in this case, it has now been reported that the abuse sent to Hannah appears to have come from Hannah herself. Following this latest development, many people online have expressed their utter bewilderment: what could drive a teenager to attack herself and then put it on display? Why would anyone self-sabotage in this way? And are other teenagers doing this?

Last year, researchers at the Massachusetts Aggression Reduction Centre found that up to ten per cent of first year university students had “falsely posted a cruel remark against themselves, or cyberbullied themselves, during high school”.

And this is not the first time that online ‘self-harassment’ or ‘self-cyberbullying’ has been identified and written about. In 2010, danah boyd, a leading social media researcher wrote about an emerging trend she had discovered on Formspring, where teens were ‘anonymously’ posting vicious questions to themselves, before publicly answering them.

Similarly, in 2008 I conducted research into the pro-anorexia community – a community set up by individuals with eating disorders. I discovered that it was not uncommon for members on these forums to write letters of worship to their disease referred to as ‘Ana’ or ‘Mia’ (anorexia or bulimia). The same member would then write a reply to themselves as though they were the personified disease. These second letters ‘from’ Ana or Mia would inevitably be full of abuse, insults and vicious put downs.

So what motivates this phenomenon and why have we heard so little about it?

According to boyd, online self-harassment like that observed on Formspring or Ask.fm, may represent a cry for help, a grab for attention, an opportunity to demonstrate toughness and resilience, or a way of phishing for compliments from friends who jump in to defend against the abuse. Boyd also describes the behavior as a form of ‘digital self-harming’, stressing that teens who are in pain do not always lash out at others: very often they lash out at themselves. And occasionally they invite an audience to watch on.

For the ‘digital self-harmer’ the presence of an audience appears to serve other purposes too. Anonymously calling oneself a “loser” online allows them to test out other people’s attitudes: do other people see me this way too? Is my perception of myself shared universally?

Secondly, by inflicting harm on themselves before an audience, it makes their pain visible and therefore more ‘real’. Finally, by giving others the impression that they are ‘under attack’, the afflicted individual is able communicate to others exactly what they are feeling: overwhelmed and under siege. And they can achieve this without ever having to risk saying the words: “I’m in pain, I need your help”.

What this means is that while the abusive comments might be manufactured the feelings they speak to are very much real.

Looking back at my own high school years, it is clear that aspects of this behavior are nothing new. Teens have always had a propensity to document their negative self-talk and self-loathing in one form or another, often in journals, angst ridden poetry and other forms of art. Sometimes teens keep these things deeply private out of secrecy and shame. At other times, they deliberately share and show these things to friends, as if to say “see my pain. See me.”

For all of us, pain is not simply something we feel, it is something we ‘perform’, often with the purpose of eliciting certain responses from others. For teenagers especially, these performances can become avenues through which they bond, ask for empathy or sympathy, and experience a sense of connectedness – something which most teenagers crave desperately. While this strategy might serve a need, it is also deeply dysfunctional.

Today this impulse is moving online. In recent months I have had two conversations with different mothers after they discovered that their children’s friends were self-harming, then posting photographs of their injuries online for their peers to comment on. Perhaps most disturbing of all was that one of the children shrugged it off as “nothing new”.

Experts are right to worry that by normalising or even glamorising self-harming behaviors, such overt displays might produce a contagion effect. This is why it’s considered dangerous to even mention the issue in schools.

Despite this, it’s important that researchers continue to look at why young people are externalising their self-hatred in this way and what can be done to help them. Moreover we must remember that sometimes the cruelest things a teen will ever hear are the comments they say to themselves.

For related posts read: Girls in crises – self harm and what you can do about it.

Rage and despair – positive, helpful ways to support girls in crises 

Nina and I at the Australian Human Rights Awards
Nina and I at the Australian Human Rights Awards

Nina is a sexual ethics writer, author and women’s rights advocate. She was awarded the Australian Human Rights Commission Community (Individual) Award in 2010. Nina and I also recently co-wrote a book for young women on navigating dating and relationships; this will be published by Harper Collins in February, 2014.

So Much To Tell You

The last few weeks have been something of whirlwind. I have been presenting to hundreds of teen girls in Adelaide, Canberra, Sydney – and am off to Melbourne and Singapore shortly too.

And oh how wonderful it was to have this on-the-ground work externally recognised by Prevention Australia Magazine. This month I was honoured to be included in their annual “40 Most Inspiring Women Over 40” issue; listed as a “Game Changer” alongside such incredible women as Jessica Rowe, Ita Buttrose, Quentin Bryce and Penny Wong!

#40womenover40
Click on image to enlarge:
#40womenover40

 

It was also wonderful to have the opportunity to return to Channel 9’s “Mornings” program to discuss the ridiculous weight jibes that were directed towards fashion model Jessica Gomes:

And finally, the audio from the session I chaired at the Sydney Opera House’s “All About Women” conference, “Bringing Up Daughters,” was uploaded. You may access it here:

Audio – Bringing Up Daughters – Sydney Opera House, 7th April, 2003.

This conversation is really thought provoking and features insights from my panellists Nigel Marsh, Maya Newell and Barbara Toner. Unfortunately, the audio gets stuck about 25 seconds in, but if you scroll past this point you will be able to listen to the entire hour. It may be worth listening as a staff / parent body and then discussing some of the key questions I posed yourselves? Questions may include:

  • In her book Leaning In, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg cites research showing that parents treat sons and daughters differently. They talk to girl babies more than boys, and spend more time comforting and hugging girls than watching them play by themselves. Mothers also overestimate the crawling abilities of their sons and underestimate it in their daughters. And Sandberg says, ‘When a girl tries to lead, she is often labelled bossy. Boys are seldom called bossy because a boy taking the role of a boss does not surprise or offend.’ She argues that the fact we treat girls and boys differently from a young age is one of the reasons there are so few women in leadership positions. Do you think that parents can subconsciously restrict the opportunities of their daughters?
  • Does new technology mean we need to change the way we parent, or are the fundamentals still the same?
  • One of the big social changes of the past decade or so that worries a lot of parents is how easy it has become to access porn. Pornography was always there—but now it’s everywhere, and it’s increasingly hard core. University of NSW research noted that 28 percent of 9–16-year-olds had seen sexual material online, which means that by the time parents settle down to have ‘the talk’ with their kids about sex education, chances are their kids have already formed their own ideas about what sex is, based on a porn ideal. So how should we talk to our daughters about sex and about the big difference between porn sex and real-life sex?
  • Most parents are juggling an extraordinary workload these days as well as running a household. The first thing many of us do each day is grab our phone and start checking emails and texts, and it doesn’t stop till we got to bed that night. A lot of us end up feeling exhausted and overwhelmed—but it’s not just parents. At my company Enlighten Education we run relaxation workshops for girls because they are increasingly stressed by an overscheduled life, an online world that never turns off and the pressure they feel to achieve. How important is it for our children that we set the tone by making healthy choices and finding a work/life balance ourselves?
  • What is the most valuable thing that you learned from your own parents that you wish all daughters could learn?

Leaky Ladies and Their Worrisome Wombs

This week’s post is an extract from Nina Funnell’s chapter in the recent feminist anthology, Destroying The Joint – Why Women have To Change The World (edited by Jane Caro). I was prompted to share this post after viewing an advertisement for menstrual products that I think is just fabulous – do take a look:

The announcement came on a Monday morning during full-school assembly. As the students sat quietly in the school gym, the deputy principal took to the stage and with her usual unimpressed air, she declared that the tampon and pad vending machines located in the girl’s bathrooms had been deemed ‘inappropriate’.

‘These machines’, she announced, ‘give an unladylike impression to our school’s guests, particularly male visitors who on, occasion, have cause to occupy the female facilities. They will be removed immediately.’

I bristled uncomfortably. What exactly did she mean by ‘unladylike’? How could there possibly be anything unladylike about products which – by definition – only ladies had cause to use? …

At recess I took the issue up with my friends. We talked about the stigma surrounding menstruation and the ridiculous tampon and pad ads on television: Why do they always use that stupid blue dye? What do they think we are, Smurfs or something? And why do the women always dance around like getting their period is the Best Thing Ever? It’s sooo patronising. Why can’t they ever just portray the subject realistically?

We talked about the decision to remove the tampon machines and the significance of it being a woman who had passed down the order – what does she use when she’s got her period? Doesn’t she remember what it is like to be caught without a pad or a tampon? Besides, if you can’t acknowledge female menstruation in a woman’s bathroom, then where on earth can you acknowledge it? – and together we agreed that something had to be done. Someone had to take action.

The following day I met with the other members of our Student Representative Council. I raised the issue and there was universal agreement that the tampon and pad machines should stay. Later that week I met with our principal, a kind and liberal man who immediately recognised the ridiculousness of the situation; he overturned the decision and we got to keep our machines. It was a small victory but it gave me a taste of something bigger. Girls could rewrite the rules….

Lifting the Curse

The year I got my first period was the same year that the movie How to Make an American Quilt came out. I remember this, because before seeing the film I had felt anxious and deeply ashamed about the changes that were occurring in my body. In the opening scene of the film, Winona Ryder’s character introduces the woman she idolises: ‘[Marianna] had lived in Paris which made her very mysterious to me when I was a kid. She taught me French, made café au laits and the year I got my period, she gave me a glass of red wine.’

This may not sound particularly remarkable. But as a thirteen-year-old girl, it had a profound impact on me because it was the first time I had seen menstruation portrayed as something which could positively bond women together. My body was changing in a way that I couldn’t control, but this was the first time that I felt that maybe this wasn’t such a bad thing. In fact, this scene struck me with such force that when the movie came out on video, I immediately hired it just to watch that one scene over.

For women and girls around the world, it’s vitally important that we develop narratives about menstruation which counter the dominant cultural and religious discourses. And there is good news here. After all, the only thing more powerful than a taboo is breaking one.

Thankfully, feminists, women’s health professionals, artists, individual women and even some advertising executives are already doing this work. And since I don’t like to acknowledge a problem without also acknowledging those who are trying to fix it, let’s take a look at a few examples.

In 2010, the tampon and pad company Kotex produced a bitingly satirical video that parodied the conventional pad advertisements on TV. The clip formed part of a wider campaign called ‘Break the Cycle’, which aimed to challenge the stigma around menstruation. The clip begins with a woman on a couch saying, ‘How do I feel about my period? Ah, we are like this.’ She then crosses her fingers indicating tight friendship. She continues: ‘I love it. It makes me feel really pure. Sometimes I just want to run on the beach. I like to twirl, maybe in slow motion. And usually by the third day, I just want to dance. The ads on TV are really helpful, because they use that blue liquid, and I’m like, ‘Oh! That’s what is supposed to happen!’ The video quickly went viral, and dozens of articles were subsequently written about the unhelpful ways in which menstruation is discussed and depicted in the public arena…

Even vampire themed texts, which have historically been read as allegories about monstrous menstruation, are beginning to play around with the stigma. In the original Buffy the Vampire Slayer movie, for example, Buffy’s superpower strength is intrinsically linked to her menstrual cycle and every time a vampire is near she experiences light period cramps. This operates as an inbuilt alarm system to alert her to the danger around her. While this ‘ability’ was dropped for the series of the show by the same name, its inclusion in the movie represents an interesting break with conventional portrayals of menstruation in vampire-themed texts.

Moving away from art and popular culture, community workers and not-for-profit organisations in the developing world are doing some amazing work to address the social exclusion of menstruating women. For example, in Rwanda, Sustainable Health Enterprises (SHE) has partnered with existing local women’s networks to offer microloans to women who then use the money to manufacture and distribute affordable, quality and eco-friendly sanitary pads. Not only does this provide the community with access to low-cost sanitary goods, but the model also offers women financial independence and increased economic security. Already this model has proved effective in increasing the school attendance of girls who may otherwise have stayed at home during their period.

But perhaps the most important work is the work that is being done by ordinary women in every day settings. In households, workplaces, schoolyards and online, girls and women are breaking a powerful taboo by talking about their experiences. Sisters, mothers, daughters and friends are blogging and speaking out about the menstrual stigma. They are developing new ways of thinking and talking about women’s bodies and, in the process, are fighting back against outmoded patriarchal attitudes. These women and girls are changing the future for all of us. They are our destroyers.

Nina and I at the Australian Human Rights Awards
Nina and I at the Australian Human Rights Awards

Nina is a sexual ethics writer, author and women’s rights advocate. She was awarded the Australian Human Rights Commission Community (Individual) Award in 2010. Nina and I also recently co-wrote a book for young women on navigating dating and relationships; this will be published by Harper Collins in February, 2014.

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