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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?”

Published inBullyingCyber world / BullyingParentsPower of WordsSocial Media

One Comment

  1. Storm Greenhill-Brown

    What an excellent article and links to help parents navigate the tech world of their kids. It is a multi-layered issue and one that needs ongoing dialogue with our kids and teens.

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