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Month: August 2014

Cyber Myths – Busted.

The following post is by my friend and colleague Nina Funnell. It originally appeared in the Term 3, 2014 NSW Parents Council Newsletter. Nina is a journalist, author (she co-wrote my latest Loveability with me) and speaker. Find out more about her work here: www.ninafunnell.com

cover image from danah's book, "It's Complicated - the social lives of networked teens."
cover image from danah’s book, “It’s Complicated – the social lives of networked teens.”

To listen to the news it would be easy to assume that young people are simply running wild online. A constant stream of stories about cyberbullying, sexting and dangerous new apps, has left many parents feeling totally bewildered. But research into young people’s actions online paints a somewhat different picture. According to danah boyd, a leading scholar and author in the field, most young people use technology in responsible and pro-social ways. And while there are certainly some challenges associated with online interactions, panicking or despairing about young people does little to equip or empower them to make sound choices. So here are three of the most pervasive myths we need to stop perpetuating about young people and technology: 

MYTH 1: If you’ve made a mistake online, no one will want to hire you.

One of the most common messages told to young people is that any mistake they make online will haunt them forever. Reputations will be permanently ruined: colleges won’t accept them, bosses won’t hire them, future love interests will reject them. While it’s certainly true that it is difficult to control what happens to information once it’s posted online, it’s also true that one of the most dangerous things we can ever tell young people is that there is no hope, no help and no possibility of recovery. For teens who may have already made an error of judgment, this messaging is especially dangerous when combined with ‘cautionary tales’ about other teens who have committed suicide in reaction to an error they have made online.

Instead of catastrophizing young people’s mistakes, teens need help to develop resilience, by putting their setbacks in context and formulating a plan to manage any future fallout. For example, developing strategies of ways to respond if someone raises an embarrassing mistake, or ways to handle an awkward interview question helps a teen move forward and lets them know there is light at the end of the tunnel.

MYTH 2: Once a bully, always a bully

One of the common misconceptions about those who use bullying tactics is that they are intrinsically bad people who can never chose to change their behavior. The reality is that many individuals who use bullying tactics are in pain themselves, and so use bullying as a maladaptive strategy to gain social power, status or control. Research also shows that a considerable number of people who use bullying tactics have also experienced bullying or intimidation. This means that rather than trying to neatly diagnose and categorize the ‘victims’ and ‘villains’ (in order to assign help to one group and punishment to the other), we need to recognize that bullies also need help. This doesn’t excuse aggressive or cruel conduct, but it does recognize that aggressive behavior is always a choice, and that young people can choose differently.

MYTH 3: Bystanders fail to intervene because they lack empathy.

Research shows that witnesses are present in 93% of bullying incidents and that bullying incidents tend to last longer when there is an audience. While schools are increasingly focusing on how to empower bystanders to ethically intervene when they observe bullying, not all young people feel capable of speaking up. Yet rarely is this because young people lack empathy. On the contrary 85% of young people are troubled by bullying they observe. So why don’t they take action?

There are a number of reasons: fear of retaliation, audience inhibition, a fear that they might ‘bomb’ or embarrass themselves if they speak up, a perception that the bully is more liked than they really are, a belief that someone else should act, and a belief that they could risk their own social status if they speak up for someone less popular than them, are all reasons why people often freeze, despite the fact that they actually oppose what is occurring.

Factors which positively correlate with a bystander choosing to take intervening action include: noting a hurtful situation and interpreting it correctly, feeling personally responsible for the safety of others, feeling personally powerful enough to speak up and take action, having effective intervention skills or ‘scripts’ they can easily follow, and feeling that other bystanders will have their back if they do speak up. By focusing on these factors and by reinforcing that most students are actually opposed to bullying we can help young people feel empowered to take action and put a stop to bullying in our schools.

For more posts on cyber world you may be interested in these posts:

Cyber self-harming – also by Nina Funnell: “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’…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?”

Beyond Cyber Hysteria Part 1 – What is working?  – “When we hear disturbing news reports about children who have been tormented to the point of desperation by cyber-bullies, or groomed and exploited by online predators, it is tempting to want to simply shut the technology off! Yet whilst it is important to be alert and aware of the dangers, it is also important to take a balanced approach and recognise the huge opportunities that technology has opened up for us all.”

Beyond Cyber Hysteria Part 2 – Bully busting – “What can be done?”

Beyond Cyber Hysteria Part 3 – Dealing with more difficult truths – ” What messages will this generation receive about desirability if their emerging sexuality is largely shaped by p*rn?”

What the Keith Urban concert assault tells us about how we view rape

On Wednesday of this week the Sydney Morning Herald’s Daily Life published a post I wrote with Nina Funnell that I wanted to  also share here. We received an incredibly supportive response; I trust you too will find the article worth sharing. 

Fans at a Keith Urban concert in Boston last week watched on as a 17-year-old girl was allegedly raped, apparently unaware that a sexual assault was taking place. Photo: Harrison Saragossi
Fans at a Keith Urban concert in Boston last week watched on as a 17-year-old girl was allegedly raped, apparently unaware that a sexual assault was taking place. Photo: Harrison Saragossi

Last week, it was reported that a 17-year-old girl was allegedly raped at a Keith Urban concert in Boston, while onlookers watched and filmed the incident on their phones.

In the same week in Australia, the story of a 14-year-old girl who was reportedly sexually assaulted during recess at her Adelaide school also broke. The girl is said to have been taped to a tree, bound with a garden hose and repeatedly assaulted by a group of eight boys who allegedly exposed and rubbed their buttocks and genitalia against her, while other students stood by watching and laughing. Images of the attack were later posted on social media exacerbating the trauma for the girl.

Have we become so incredibly desensitised to assault against girls and women that some now think of sexual violence as mere fodder for our phones? And to what extent do people even recognise sexual assault when they witness it, or know how to intervene?

In our discussions with young people around gender and relationships, we have learnt that many young people do not realise what sexual assault looks like, especially when it doesn’t conform to the knife-wielding stranger in an alleyway narrative. Tellingly, at the Keith Urban concert one witness told police he thought it was just “a couple having sex on the lawn”. Others who filmed the incident claimed they didn’t know what was happening so passed their footage on to police so they could figure it out. It was only once a lone woman approached the crowd and asked the girl if she was consenting, to which she replied “no”, that the alleged rapist was finally physically pulled away.

Confused ideas about what does and doesn’t constitute rape also impact on trials. Research shows that juries often expect to see signs of physical violence and injury, under the mistaken belief that all rape involves extreme physical force.

These myths – that most sexual assaults are committed by strangers; that all sexual assault involves physical force; that victims usually scream or fight back (as opposed to being paralysed by fear); that sexual assault always involves a penis and a vagina – are part of the reason that some individuals fail to correctly interpret incidents they observe.

One of the most revealing examples of this problem occurred last year during the now infamous Steubenville rape case, where two footballers were found guilty of sexually assaulting an unconscious girl at a party.

At the trial, witness Evan Westlake gave evidence against his teammates stating that he had observed one perpetrator smacking the unconscious girl’s hip with his penis while the other perpetrator inserted two fingers into her vagina. When asked why he didn’t intervene Westlake answered, “It wasn’t violent. I didn’t know exactly what rape was. I always pictured it as forcing yourself on someone.”

Yet earlier that night Westlake observed another party-goer prepare to drink drive and in that instance Westlake did intervene. He tricked the drunk teen into handing over the car keys, demonstrating a clear capacity to act as an ethical bystander in that context.

Westlake’s choices that evening reflect both the success of anti drink-driving messaging, and the need for stronger messaging about sexual violence and consent. Westlake’s decision to intervene in one context but not another also indicates that intervention skills are of no use, unless a person is also taught how to assess when and where they are needed.

According to research, the main factors which determine whether or not a person is likely to intervene in a situation such as a sexual assault include: noting the harm and interpreting it correctly; feeling personally responsible for the safety of others; feeling personally powerful enough to speak up and take action; having practical intervention skills and effective “scripts” to follow; and feeling that other bystanders around them will support them.

In other words, it’s not enough to simply teach “right from wrong”. Students need targeted education on sexual assault and informed consent combined with the explicit teaching of ethical bystander skills. It’s also important that we praise the positive stories of ethical bystanders, such as the woman at the Keith Urban concert who took action.

Focusing on positive stories is not only validating for those being praised. It’s also an important strategy in normalising ethical behaviour.

After all, when news reports focus primarily on the behaviour of those who mock or ignore the plight of sexual assault victims, this can end up creating a mistaken perception that this is the dominant social attitude. The reality is the exact opposite: most people are appalled by sexual assault and disgusted by those who ridicule victims. Reaffirming that support for victims is the dominant view discredits those who feel otherwise.  More importantly, it speaks to those bystanders who do care.

It lets them know they have numbers on their side.

* Support is available for anyone who may be distressed by calling Lifeline 131 114, Mensline 1300 789 978, Kids Helpline 1800 551 800.

To read the book Nina and I wrote for teen girls on dating and relationships, view the site here: LOVEABILITY. 

What to look for when choosing a counsellor or psychologist

The following guest post is shared with permission from the author, the wonderful Matt Glover from MGA Counselling Services. Matt wrote this following a discussion I had with him and two other professionals I admire, Sarah McMahon from BodyMatters and Jacqui Manning, The Friendly Psychologist. Sarah has also put together an excellent resource on how to select a therapist for eating disorders which may be viewed here.

Recently I was having a discussion with Dannielle Miller from Enlighten Education about what to look for when choosing a counsellor or psychologist.  In Australia, we still live in a culture that places some stigma on seeing a mental health professional, and so we are hesitant to ‘ask around’ like we do when looking for a plumber or dentist. If you’re wrestling with a mental health issues, a relationship problem, a personal issue, or just feel plain stuck, make sure you check the following before booking a session with a counsellor or psychologist.

1. Check the qualifications. While Psychology and Social Work are regulated industries, Counselling is not. Anybody can set themselves up as a counsellor and charge a premium without even a single hour of training. Online certificates and diploma’s abound in counselling, but these are little better than nothing at all. Many of them do not require any sort of supervised placement and barely scratch the surface of best practice when it comes to the different models of therapy. For counsellors, I would suggest sticking with those that have a Bachelor degree or above, from a reputable university. When you ring to make a booking, ask where the therapist did their training.

2. Check the accreditation. Make sure the counsellor you see is accredited at more than student level with one of the professional bodies. The professional bodies maintain a code of ethics for the industry and ensure that individual therapists are engaged in ongoing professional development and supervision. As a counsellor, I’m accredited through the Australian Counselling Association, but there are equivalent associations for Psychologists and Social Workers.

3. Check the experience. Regardless of your heart for helping people, it takes a while to become really proficient in the helping industries. I say to aspiring counsellors to try and get work with a larger agency before thinking about  private work or opening your own practice. I worked for 14 years for other organisations before opening MGA. When you ring a therapist, ask them how long they’ve been practicing. If they say “two weeks”, wish them well for their career, hang up, and call the next person on your list.

4. Check the specialty. Most of us have a field that we specialize in, based on our own interests and history. In my practice, we focus on sexuality, spirituality, and mental health, with individual therapists at MGA having more focused areas like relationships, eating disorders and the like. If you’re after some help with depression, for instance, make sure your therapist has experience working in that area. Associated with this point is the model of therapy. There’s lots of different ‘therapies’ – some will suit you and others won’t. CBT has been popular in the past but seems to be going out of fashion in recent years. Gestalt is still popular, as is person centered therapy. Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) is the model we use at MGA, but each client is treated according to their needs, not pushed through a conveyor belt.

5. Check the “fit.” If you find you don’t really click with your therapist, find somebody else. I don’t have any research to back this up at all, but my feeling is that at least 50% of a good outcome in counselling depends on how well you get along with your counsellor. If you have a counsellor that is rude, irritating, talks about themselves all the time, seems uninterested, hurries you along, doesn’t listen or even smells funny, then you won’t get the most out of your time together. You may even miss some important, helpful suggestions because you really just don’t like them very much. Sometimes a good outcome does take time, but you want to take that journey with somebody who you connect with well.

6. Check the reputation. This is a little harder to do, but ask around to see what sort of reputation a therapist has. Personal recommendations are not a rock solid guarantee (you have to get along well with them remember) but it’s nice to know that there is some good reports about the person you are seeing.

7. Check the responsibility. By this I mean, check that you have responsibility for where the sessions go and what it is you cover. I do a lot of work with the transgender community and I’ve lost count how many times clients say to me that their previous counsellor talked about nothing but their gender transition, despite the client wanting to see them for an entirely different reason. (Eg, bullying at work) In sessions, make sure you talk about what YOU want to talk about. As things unfold, you may uncover other things that you need to work on – a skilled therapist will help you do this. But if your counsellor insists on making you talk about things that seem irrelevant and they won’t give you a reason why, think about whether you should continue with them.

8. Check the practical stuff. Ask how long the sessions are, what the fees are, whether it has disability access, whether it is close to public transport, is there parking available, what are the opening hours and so on. Whatever practical things are important to you, ask about them. Also check to see if your therapist has any long holidays planned – sometimes a break in momentum can set you back, so if they’re going to be away for six months, ask for somebody else.

The lovely Jacqui and I on the set of channel 9's Mornings show.
The lovely Jacqui and I on the set of channel 9’s Mornings show.

Jacqui offered a few final thoughts in addition to these I thought worth sharing here too: “Also, I’d say that if the work feels confronting, that’s OK, therapy is meant to make shifts and sometimes these can feel uncomfortable but it shouldn’t stay that way for long. The therapist should be skilled at going at your pace, but if they’re not, it’s perfectly acceptable to ask them to slow down. And if you don’t click with one therapist? Don’t give up on the process. It’s like finding a good hairdresser, it can take time to find the right person to trust, but you don’t stop getting your hair done if you have had one bad haircut.”

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