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Not being friends with everyone isn’t bullying. It’s life

It’s the deceptively unhelpful piece of advice that every well-intentioned adult has at one point issued to a child: “You should be friends with everybody!”

Admit it — who among us, parent or not, has not acted as unofficial cheerleader when discussing playground friendships with a young child? Fearful that they might fall into the trap of becoming a bully, we urge them to make friends with everyone. As in, EVERYONE, whether they like them or not.

Amid all the positive messages that were shared yesterday as part of the National Day of Action against Bullying and Violence, the edict “You should be friends with everybody!” was the one sentence I dreaded hearing.

Although well intentioned, it ignores the complex dynamics of human relationships.

The truth is, we are not going to like everybody, all the time. And it’s not only OK to acknowledge that — it’s healthy.

It seems we’ve become so hyper-vigilant against bullies that every playground disagreement, or failure to be invited to a party, is now catalogued as evidence of bullying.

To help stem the rising tide of kids who are too quick to cry “Bully!” some schools have taken to posting sign that try to help explain the nuances of our more complicated social interactions: “When someone says or does something unintentionally hurtful and they do it once, that’s rude. When someone says or does something intentionally hurtful and they do it once, that’s mean. When someone says or does something intentionally hurtful and they keep doing it,- even when you tell then to stop or show them that you’re upset, that’s bullying.”

And it’s not just the kids who need educating. Parents are becoming increasingly quick to call schools to express concern that their child has been bullied when in reality, their child has experienced one of the many garden variety friendship fall outs that we all face at some point.

“There are kids who find school hell as they are subjected to ongoing campaigns of intolerance,” a colleague told me. “I’d much rather see resources poured into resolving this rot than in dealing with the tide of parents who call before their child has even had an opportunity to flex their own conflict resolution muscles.”

It’s problematic too that the friendship police often target girls. Any reluctance to have another student sit with them is viewed as evidence of mean girl machinations. Any whispered discussion about their classmates sees them labelled as gossip girls.

Given young women are expected to be paragons of acceptance and inclusivity is it any wonder that some grow up to unable to recognise unhealthy relationships and struggle to set boundaries with those who would hurt them?

The reality is that there are intricate sets of rules that govern the relationships between all young people (boys and girls) and much of the behaviour we are so quick to demonise is how they solidify friendships and practice social manoeuvring.

After all, don’t we as adults have particular mates that we prefer to spend our free time with? Don’t we also find it cathartic to vent to our inner circle when someone annoys us?

It’s far more empowering and realistic to let our kids know they don’t have to be friends with everyone — but they should be friendly.

It’s OK to not invite someone to your party, but don’t boast about the event in front of them. It’s understandable that you may not want to sit with a student you don’t have much in common with, but you could still smile at them when you see them in the playground. It’s natural that you might want to discuss someone who has hurt you with your mates, but be discreet.

When we give permission to our young people to behave authentically, within a framework of mutual respect for others, we are showing them that we don’t just value the feelings of others, but we value their feelings too.

And when they don’t feel forced into faux friendships, well it’s then our young people might just surprise us (and themselves) by realising that kid they initially didn’t like is actually kinda cool.

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This post was first published by the Daily Telegraph newspaper, 19/3/16 and online at RendezView  

Feminism, girls and the economy, the art of being alone: my week in the media.

I’ve had the opportunity to contribute to, and write, some really interesting pieces for various media outlets this week. I want to share the highlights with you here.

The always-wise Dr Karen Brooks unpacked the reluctance some (including our political leaders) have with the term “Feminist” here: Why is feminism such an uncomfortable word?

Increasingly, young women are afraid to align themselves with feminism in case it makes them a social pariah. They also feel too intimidated to join the often robust dialogue about what it means to be a feminist in contemporary times for fear of how they’ll be spoken to or silenced or (mis)understood. An example of this can be seen in Helen Razer’s response to Watson’s speech (“a boxed kitten makes great digital capital” – ouch).

This lack of generosity towards fledgling feminists and their position needs to be addressed.

Dannielle Miller, author and CEO of Enlighten Education, runs workshops with tens of thousands of young women every year. She says less than 10 per cent call themselves feminists even though most admit they’re not quite sure what a feminist is. But once they understand, they see it makes sense to be one. “After all,” says Miller, “why wouldn’t you believe in gender equality?”

I loved having the opportunity to contribute and offer an insight into how young women feel about the women’s movement. As I explained in a previous blog post, for me, finding Feminism as a teen girl felt very much like finding Home. Finally, a place where I felt known, understood, accepted and challenged! I still find the sisterhood to be the most incredible source of inspiration and validation. What a joy then to be able to introduce the next generation to a movement that is still very much needed – and in desperate need of their perspectives!

One of the ways in which I connect young girls to Feminism through Enlighten’s Real Girl Power workshop is through humour (which is a great way too of instantly debunking any “feminists can’t be fun” stereotypes). We begin by exploring what popular culture will often tell us girl-power should look like and deconstruct how the phrase has been used to sell women everything from cleaning products to super-stomach-sucking-elastic pants (irony much?). You may read more about this workshop here. 

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Ninemsn ran the results of a huge UK survey on teens conducted by the Schools Health Education Unit. The key findings? 

The state of the economy is not just a bother for bankers — teenage girls seem to be absorbing the stress too, with a survey suggesting their confidence has dipped since the world was thrust into a Global Financial Crisis (GFC).

Cyber bullying is also taking its toll, according to the UK survey of 30,000 school students, with a third of 10 and 11-year-olds saying they fear being bullied.

Teens’ confidence ratings had been consistently improving between 1990 and 2008 when 41 percent of 14 and 15-year-old girls said they had a high self-esteem.

But that dropped in the following six years, with only 33 percent now saying they feel good about themselves.

Why might the economy may be impacting on girls in this way? I am quoted in the article: “Children are economically dependent on their parents and their families and those pressures filter downwards. Often the first things that tend to go are branded items, such as cosmetics and new clothes, which are the kinds of things that really matter to teenagers…Having the right shoes or brand of jeans can seem like such a critical thing for trying to fit in with a peer group. There also is social stigma about being the ‘poor kid’… I would imagine a lot of young people are feeling a sense of shame, which is impacting on their sense of self and their self-esteem.” I also helped explain why we may still be seeing huge concerns over body image and technology in this article so do check it out.

Finally, I wrote an Opinion piece for the Daily Telegraph on the art of being alone. Although this was aimed at all readers, not just those who care for young women, you may find some of the ideas on the art of connection useful.

More people are living by themselves than ever before. In fact one in 10 Australians live alone. Single, however, does not necessarily mean lonely. Countries with high levels of people living alone actually score well on international happiness ratings.

Is it because these solo artists are content in their own company?

Not entirely.

Despite the popular rhetoric around the appeal of “me-time,” the reality is we are social creatures and need human interactions in order to be happy.

Social researcher Hugh Mackay, author of The Art of Belonging, argues that “communities can be magical places, but the magic comes from us, not to us”.

The key then is to learn how to venture out and connect. And even more fundamentally, to learn that it is OK to do so. It is this idea that I explored in my writing.

Enjoy!

 

 

Reclaim The Night – 16 year old Lily speaks out about the on-line harassment of young women.

This week I am proud to have been given permission to publish an extract from one of the speeches given at yesterday’s Reclaim The Night rally in Sydney; this was given by 16 year old high school student Lily. The event was part of what is now a world-wide protest movement by women against sexual violence.

I am awed by Lily’s strength in speaking out in this way, and encouraged by the incredible grass-roots feminist group she has helped establish at her school.

May she inspire us all to work even harder for, and with, our girls. And may we all seek to create even more opportunities for young women to be given a platform from which they can share their experiences too.

 

Good evening! Thank you so much for having me. I’m Lily, I’m 16 years old and currently starting Year 12. I’ve spent a good amount of time with technology in my life and tonight I’m going to be speaking about the treatment of women on the internet today, as I see it and know it, and the experiences that other women have had online.

Collective Voice – High School students fighting sexism.

I’d like to start by giving a shout out to the feminist group at my school, Collective Voice, who are here today (there’s the banner)! In 2010 Collective Voice was started by our teacher Ms Fajou, in response to a lack of discussion with our peers about the sexism teens receive from the media, and each other. We discuss what feminism means to us – how we feel about body image, violence against women, homophobia, politics. We run campaigns at school encouraging girls to reject “beauty standards”, making posters and signing petitions.

We also have a very active Facebook page that we use to share videos, articles and current events connected with feminism. Here we share discuss issues that matter to us as young women. It’s awesome. We are building skills of productive dialogue and knowledge and opinion, which is powerful. One thing that we’re working against with Collective Voice is the widespread level of online sexism; a lot of online spaces have been claimed by a boys’ club of obscenity, anonymity and oppression.

I believe it is important, vitally important, to acknowledge that what happens online is still valid despite not being ‘in real life’. The attitudes and beliefs you encounter, the harassment you face, and the sexism which manifests is just as real online as offline. Just like in workplaces, boardrooms or any other social environments, online spaces can be made to feel unsafe and threatening. And when women perceive a space to be unsafe or threatening they are less likely to be able to participate equally in that space. If we stepped into a public space or workplace that was adorned with unavoidably graphic pornographic posters, where the people who you approached yelled hate speech at you or harassed you, where you were belittled or denied equal treatment due to your sex, gender, orientation or opinion – it would not be acceptable.

About a month ago, I attended my year 11 social. I had a good time and goofed around a bit, as you do. A few days later I found a particular photo of myself from the social on Facebook; it had been commented on extensively. Over 10 boys and men who are still complete strangers to me commented freely on my appearance, they debated whether they would masturbate to it, they told me that my photo would haunt me for years to come, they openly, and unapologetically discussed what they imagined my genitalia would look like. They were supported by over 40 others, who had ‘liked’ their comments.

This isn’t the first we’ve seen of Facebook acting as a medium for sexism and abuse, however. Notable additions have been “Punch a slut in the face day” (a group set up in a NSW school by boys who then went on to physically assault girls they perceived as promiscuous), “Define statutory: pro-rape, anti-consent” (from the lovely lads at St Pauls college from Sydney University); “it’s not rape if you yell surprise” and a swathe of pages titled with ‘women in the kitchen jokes’ in 2010. We saw the recent case of ‘Root Rate’, a page for young men to publically rate their sexual experiences with women, encouraging a lot of sexism and derogatory comments. Many of the contributors and the girls spoken about were underage.

Just two weeks ago, the world witnessed the case of Amanda Todd, a 15 year old girl who committed suicide after receiving extreme abuse online and in real time. Todd showed her breasts to a man online about 3 years earlier, and for this she was condemned by her peers and others. Before she committed suicide she posted a video online describing her story in detail.

Jarrah Hodge, who writes and educates on gender representations in media, politics and pop-culture, said, “(In the media commentary surrounding her case) there was no discussion of the pressure girls like Amanda experience to measure their worth through their sexual desirability. From her story it sounds like this man had the hallmarks of a predator—he tried to use her photos to blackmail her and yet she’s the one who got blamed. This comes from the idea that it’s up to girls and women to protect their purity at the same time as all their role models in the media say that you need to ‘get a man’ to be a complete person, that you need to be sexually attractive to be liked, appreciated, and valued. She said the guy she showed off to was telling her how beautiful she was. Given our culture that can be really tempting for a girl.”

What is surprising is that sexist, oppressive behaviour online has become very mainstream, especially considering that women make up the larger proportion of users of social media!

Currently 64% of Facebook users are female as are 58% of Twitter users. In theory, online space is a woman’s domain! And yet, online you receive 25 times as much abuse if you state that you are a woman or if your username is feminine…

…This is not a joke. This cannot be trivialised. What happens on the internet directly influences the way people behave in reality, and regardless how we interact with each other online is still a human interaction.

Of course, I am not the only person to speak out against the way women are objectified and men encouraged to degrade women online. There are numerous activists and online petitions targeting Reddit, Facebook and other forums.

It is how these efforts are responded to that perhaps gives us the most frightening insight of all.

Anita Sarkeesian has been running an online video series called Feminist Frequency since 2009, exploring and deconstructing pop culture in an accessible way. Sarkeesian makes video blogs (a form of blogging for which the medium is video, considered a form of internet television) analysing movies, TV shows, music videos – the things that influence us, and especially young people.

Her most recent project has been ‘Tropes Vs. Women in Video Games’, a 12 video project exploring the way women are represented in video games. During the making of it she has encountered unprecedented harassment. She writes:

“… a harassment campaign is being waged against me and has included attempts to get my accounts banned, a torrent of hate on YouTube, plus countless threats of violence, death, sexual assault and rape. As part of that intimidation effort the Wikipedia page about me was vandalized with misogynist language, pornography and racial slurs.This was not done by just one or two trolls but was a coordinated cyber mob style effort involving a whole gang working together.”

So this is what it all comes down to. Sarkeesian, now backed by over 7000 donors, is breaking the rules of the male dominated gaming community with this project. Not only is she attacking the way women are treated in the games, but the way women are treated in the gaming community – there is no space for women to exist at the same level as men in a community which constantly sees them as objects…

…Now, don’t get me wrong, the internet can be a lovely place. And the reason we all use it so much is because it has infinitely widened our ability to learn, communicate and create. The problem lies in dealing with issues of prejudice and offense – we just don’t know how to effectively serve justice online.

All too often, the cry goes up that the internet is the problem.The problem never lies with the internet itself, the blame lies with wrongful attitudes and social acceptance of them.

There is no ‘one size fits all’ solution for solving inequality on the internet, just as there isn’t one for ‘reality’. But we, as women, do need to be strongly active. We need to take the knowledge and perspective we have and make it heard. The internet is a highly modern space filled with primitive ideals, and frankly, we’re better than that.

So tonight we are here to reclaim the spaces we exist in and make them safe for all women! Let’s include in that, the online space. And let’s reclaim the right for all women to live free from violence, harassment, misogyny and abuse!

 

Making Friends with Facebook: Technology has changed, but teens still just want to connect

rachel hansenThis week’s post, revealing the truth behind the hysteria about all the time girls spend on Facebook and texting, is by our talented program manager for Enlighten Education in New Zealand, Rachel Hansen. Rachel is an experienced health and wellbeing educator who has a first-class honours degree in Psychology and a Masters degree in Criminology from Cambridge University (UK). Her research has focused on youth development, youth offending and women’s health.

Every so often new research is published on just how much time teens are spending online and engaged in social media. Eye-catching headlines are designed to shock: “Teenage ‘hypertexters’ more likely to have sex, drink, use drugs”, “Psychologist Warns of Facebook Dangers”, “Facebook warning after Aust teen lured to death”.

Generation Y has never known life without internet, and at times the way their world functions seems completely foreign to many parents. I always get a chuckle from teen girls’ reactions when I explain to them how my friends and I managed to navigate girl-world without the assistance of mobile phones or Facebook. To them, social media is so essential to the way they connect with their friends that it is hard for them to imagine a world without it. The effect all this connectivity is having on our children is certainly a hot topic among parents that I speak to.

All this has got me thinking – just how different are the social habits of today’s teens to those a generation ago?

As a teenager, I spent many hours camped on our family landline. I would farewell my friends at school, and then as soon as I got home I would be on the phone. I have a note in my 1992 diary exclaiming: “Broke my phone record!!! 6 hours non-stop!!! One phonecall!!!” (My mind boggles. Did we have toilet breaks? Refreshment pauses?)

And when we weren’t talking on the phone, we were writing to one another. Pages and pages and pages. My friends and I would wave goodbye as we headed off to our respective classes or homes, and these waves would always be accompanied with “write me a letter!” When we saw each other again, we would exchange letters and keep them to read when we next had to endure separation for more than 10 minutes. Due to my hoarding tendencies, I have kept every one of these letters. And let me clarify that these are not notes – some stretch to 20 pages long!

My point is this: as a teenager I spent in excess of 20 hours a week engaging in non-face-to-face social contact – that is, telephone calls and letters. I think that this behaviour at times probably exasperated my parents, but it did not have them fearing for my future socialisation.

Today’s teenagers send messages and status updates constantly, just as I spent endless hours talking on the landline and hand-writing letters. The medium is different but the drive is the same: the desire to connect with others, explore friendships, delve deeper into one’s emotions, and understand and develop relationships. This desire has always driven teen girls’ behaviour. I suggest that when it comes to core needs and values, girls today are not that different at all to us as teens. It is just that the modes girls use to express themselves have changed.

A common theme of the concerns about social media is that it prevents girls from developing real friendships. In presenting Enlighten workshops to teen girls all around New Zealand, I see no evidence of this. I see girls hugging, talking and sharing their lives with one another. They write about how important their best friends are in their lives. Recent research by Girl Scouts USA indicates that:

despite popular perception, social networks are not necessarily a ‘girl’s best friend’ . . . The vast majority of girls prefer face-to-face communication. Ninety-two percent would give up all of their social networking friends if it meant keeping their best friend.

The study also showed that 52% of girls have used a social networking site to become involved in a cause that they care about, and more than half agree that social networking online helps them feel closer to their friends.

girls making heart signs

I acknowledge that there are valid concerns about cyber-bullying, children viewing inappropriate material and the effects on a teen’s sense of self-worth of maintaining an online profile. Along with the many milestones your child encounters on the way to adulthood, the “safe social media talk” must happen. The sooner kids learn the basics of social media and staying safe online, the better: Superclubs Plus is a safe, regulated social media site for 6–12-year-olds. In many schools in New Zealand and Australia, this is sponsored so is free to use.

Before we rush to condemn social media, it’s important to consider the many benefits of all this connectivity and how it can be a positive in our teens’ lives if used appropriately. In a previous post, Dannielle Miller has discussed the many benefits of girls being cyber-savvy:

Technology has the capacity to allow for connecting, creating, informing and educating. Let’s not allow fear to drive us to further isolate and limit our girls. Rather, let’s inspire girls to get savvy and to use ICT as a tool to meet their own needs.

One of the big concerns parents have regarding social media is privacy. However, ironically Generation Y is far more conscious of privacy online than their parents. According to Education IT consultant Robyn Treyvaud:

The Gen Ys who have been hanging out on Facebook for a while understand the implications of the privacy changes Facebook have implemented four or five times since December. I give them a lot of credit and we’ve got a lot to learn from them. We do fall into the trap of thinking we know better than them.

Furthermore, research by Mary Madden of the US-based Pew Internet Project this year found that

contrary to the popular perception that younger users embrace a laissez-faire attitude about their online reputations, young adults are often more vigilant than older adults when it comes to managing their online identities” . . . Young people were very aware of their online reputation – customising privacy settings and limiting the information about them that appears online.

I think it is too easy for parents to dismiss social media and demonise it. Parents who ban their teenagers from social networks or widely condemn their use are doing their children a disservice. As one writer put it: “Is Facebook really worse for teenagers’ brains than the mindless reruns of Gilligan’s Island and The Brady Bunch that their parents consumed growing up?”

I use Facebook regularly for connecting with friends, meeting like-minded people and keeping up-to-date on the latest research and news in my fields of interest. I live in (relatively) small-town New Zealand and I have many wonderful friends in my town. But Facebook allows me the luxury of connecting with a wide range of people who share my passions. I would feel professionally isolated without social media. Similarly I have heard numerous stories from quirky teens who just don’t have a social group they fit in with in their small town. The beauty of the internet is that regardless of how quirky your interests are, it’s guaranteed that somewhere there is someone else sharing your interests. For some teens, finding an online community of like-minded people can literally be a lifesaver.

Social networking icons by: ZyMOS [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Beyond Cyber Hysteria – Part 2: Cyber bully busting

Did we buy our children a bike and drop them off in the highway? Did we ever not say, “Drive safely” when our children drove off for their first time after they got their license? Did we not tell our children, “Don’t talk to strangers” when they go somewhere on their own?
Mary Kay Hoal, cyber-bullying expert.

Whilst bullying is by no means a new phenomenon, the relative anonymity the online world allows, and the fact that nasty words and images posted online cannot easily be erased, has seen increased alarm over cyber-bullying. The Australian television show 4 Corners produced a harrowing and informative episode on this, which may be viewed here: The Bullies Playground.

How common is cyber-bullying?

Although only around 10% of teens say they have been bullied online, research shows that teens don’t tend to use the term “cyber-bullying” as they find it amusing. If young people are asked whether or not they have ever received abusive text messages, for example, more tend to respond in the affirmative. The real statistics for cyber-bullying may therefore be much higher. We also know bullying tends to peak both online or offline for children around Year 5, and again around Year 7 or 8: it is assumed this is because these periods of transition often increase anxiety.

Janice Turner wrote a perceptive piece on the impact even less directly hostile exchanges can have on vulnerable young people in the UK Times recently: When hatred comes to your home page. In it, she writes:

(my friend, a psychotherapist) says it is the ordinary stuff which devastates her patients, the photos of a sleepover to which you weren’t invited, your best friend ignoring you and chatting on someone else’s “wall”. And everyone will know, by how many friends you have, whether you’re a big, fat loser. It’s not even proper bullying, just crude kidult passive-aggression. But, boy, does it hurt.

Even so, her patients cannot stop themselves logging in. They have to look. And so the mean-girl snubs, the whispering behind hands, follow them home and upstairs into lonely bedrooms.

We think as adults we are tougher, that something as remote and notional as a chat room cannot hurt us. Indeed, it is a blast, a liberation, when talking online to say what you really mean for once, to make mischief, to dispense with uptight British niceness, or even assume the guise of an avatar, a pumped-up, better-hung version of our own weedy workaday self.

In the glow of our screens, safely at home, we think our egos are armour-plated. But there is no protection as we step on to the ten-lane superhighway of a billion heartless strangers. It can smart like hell, that withering rebuke from someone you’ll never meet…

Whilst certainly even being snubbed socially can smart, social commentator, author and academic Dr Karen Brooks cautions that we should not overreact to some of the exchanges that happen online in her piece on bullying published in The Courier-Mail:

A prominent television campaign to discourage cyber-bullying even describes “using harsh words” as bullying.

While it is important that we educate young people about this – the implications, effects and consequences, on perpetrator and victim – it is also important that we do not conflate normal child and adolescent behaviour with the type of bullying that can have devastating consequences.

Frankly, if a child cannot handle being teased (distinguishing intention is paramount) or the occasional “harsh” word delivered in an emotive moment, then we have another problem we need to be discussing.

Building resilience in our children is essential. We hear a great deal about “cotton wool kids” – those who fall over psychologically and emotionally as soon as they discover they are not as perfect, wonderful, clever or talented as they have been led to believe.

I agree that both building resilience, and setting sensible guidelines, is critical.

What can be done?

Rule number 1: Don’t punish the victim by denying them access to technology. Although it is tempting to simply switch everything off, research shows that sometimes girls hold back from telling adults about cyber-bullying because they fear they will be banned from using the internet. Rather than making threats, keep the lines of communication open and establish trust.

When I work with young women, I keep it simple. My advice to them is: ask yourself, Would you do this in the real world? Would you go to your local shops and hand out pictures of yourself in your bikini? Would you agree to become friends with some random who marched up to you at the cinema and wanted to start hanging out ? Would you stand up at assembly and yell out, “I hate Samantha, she is a fat cow!” This last example is used in the excellent clip “Talent Show”:

It is also important to get to know your child’s preferred cyber world;  you cannot offer advice and guidance if you are not familiar with the cyber-environment they are part of. I also like the idea of encouraging your child to connect  to a cyber-mentor, a trusted older person who can “Friend” them on Facebook, for example, and keep an eye on what is happening and step in and offer advice if needed. Most young people can identify at least one older person who they think is cool enough to want to allow “in”. I also like the idea of developing scripts with your child that they can use when things do go wrong. I have done this with a 15-year-old friend. When her Facebook “Friends” spoke to her in a disrespectful way on her wall, we worked through suitable responses she could use and settled on the following: “Hey guys, I get that you’re joking but I still find it hurtful when people use that kind of language about me so let’s keep it sweet – coolies? :)” It is amazing how an assertive statement, followed by an emoticon, can diffuse a potentially hostile situation!

If the bullying is full-blown, teen Tom Wood, a cyber-bullying survivor who now blogs on how to resolve cyber conflict offers the following 5 Steps:

1. Don’t respond to the bully AT ALL (It will make it worse, trust me;)

2. Save the evidence, whether it is text, images or websites (He provides instructions on how to do this at his site)

3. Block and Delete the bully from the service (Again, instructions are provided)

4. Report Abuse to the Admins of the service

5. Tell trusted people, which may be friends, adults, teachers, parents and police if necessary – as it is a criminal offence.

One of the biggest challenges schools I work with are facing is knowing how to respond to concerns over cyber-bullying, particularly as the inappropriate online behaviour is rarely happening during school hours as most schools use filters to block social networking sites. The New York Times ran an outstanding feature on this: Online Bullies Pull Schools Into The Fray. I would strongly recommend schools circulate this and formulate some discussion questions to share at a staff meting. Questions that I think worthy of consideration include:

  • Professor James, an education law scholar, is quoted in the article as saying: “Educators are empowered to maintain safe schools…the timidity of educators in this context of emerging technology is working to the advantage of bullies.”  Do you agree? What steps should schools be taking to ensure all students feel secure?
  • Should schools have the right to search mobile phones? What is your school’s policy on this?
  • The NY Times explains that Principal Tony Orsini caused a controversy when he sent a letter home to parents stating that “There is absolutely NO reason for any middle school student to be part of a social networking site.” Do you agree? Has your school offered parents guidelines on how to manage their child’s cyber usage?

Next week I will look at some of  the ugly elements of cyber world – including the proliferation of P*rn. The reality?  We need to deal with the fact that it is not a matter of if our child will see it online, but rather when.

To make a booking for me to present my new parent workshop on managing cyber world, please email me: danni@enlighteneducation.com.

The Darker Side of Facebook

Facebook has become a positive part of many of our lives, but there is a darker side of Facebook that all parents and educators need to be aware of: cyber-bullying. It is inevitable that bullies will try to use social networking sites as a tool. It gives them a platform to humiliate their victims not just in front of a schoolyard full of kids but potentially a global audience, with little chance of being held accountable.

The problem has grown so great that dealing with the fallout has become a major part of many school counsellors’ jobs. The Adelaide Advertiser reported that at Blackwood High School, counsellors “spend all day Monday and sometimes longer dealing with the issues that are generated on Facebook and by text messages over the weekend”. 

Kids are also using Facebook to harass teachers. In Australia recently, students have posted messages on Facebook threatening a teacher with being “massacred by chainsaws”, targeting a female teacher with sexually offensive material and falsely alleging that another was a gay paedophile.

Bullies are renowned for being blind to the feelings of others, and when they take their bullying campaigns to the internet, a terrible thing appears to happen: that lack of empathy spreads like a virus. The victims become depersonalised, just images on a screen rather than real people with real feelings, and it is all too easy for others to join in the mocking. Recently, 60 students at an Adelaide high school were involved in bullying a fellow student on Facebook, according to The Advertiser.

This phenomenon in evident on a very disturbing misogynistic Facebook page that Melinda Tankard Reist blogged about. It is a page on which members can post pictures of women or girls they deem to be “sluts”. These ordinary young women are left completely vulnerable to appalling taunts and insults by people all over the globe. She wrote:

Some images are clearly posted for revenge. Often full names are used. What means do these women and girls have to defend themselves? How do they deal with it? What does it mean for them in their daily lives at school or work or at home or anywhere, to be identified to the whole world as a slut?

By allowing this site, Facebook is a conduit for bullying, harassment and abuse.

There are a number of pages on Facebook that are, to use Melinda’s words, “temples to human cruelty”.

I was mystified when a 14-year-old girl at a school I worked with recently told me she had joined a Facebook page for fans of Eminem, named after a line in his song Superman: “I do know one thing though, bitches, they come they go’s.”

Image used on FB Page
Image used on FB Page

The Eminem song is that of a battle-scarred adult, full of twisted hurt at failed relationships, and full of vitriol and hate against all women. The profile picture? A beautiful but scared-looking young woman with her mouth taped shut, her hands presumably bound.  What a bully’s fantasy that is. I think it’s important to be aware that we live in a world where 14-year-old girls can be drawn to, and get involved with, such a seemingly incongruous message and online community.

But as I have written before in this blog, the worst thing we can do is have a knee-jerk reaction and try to stop girls from using Facebook. Not only would it be impossible, it would be a bad idea. Maintaining connections and mastering technology are vital for girls’ development. All young people need to not only be able to read and write in print media, but to be ‘multi-literate’, competent in the full range of media.

It is important not to lose perspective: most of what happens on Facebook is fine, and social networking sites can be a great way to get girls engaged in technology. Enlighten Education has its own Facebook page where positivity reigns supreme and the empowerment of girls is the ultimate goal. We post articles and videos to inspire girls and get them thinking, and we provide a safe and affirming forum for them to express themselves.

What we all need to do is get involved with our teen girls and give them the support and skills they need to use technology safely. At Enlighten, we run “digital citizenship” workshops for teens and parents, because it is crucial for teens to learn to navigate the social world of the internet, in the same way that it has always been crucial for them to learn to navigate the social world of the schoolyard. 

Bullying must never be ignored, whether it’s taking place face-to-face, on the internet or via text messaging. As adults we need to take responsibility for bullying, and give teens the support they need to deal with it.

Combating Cyber-bullying

  • Sometimes girls hold back from telling adults about cyber-bullying because they fear they will be banned from using the internet. Rather than making threats, keep the lines of communication open and establish trust. 
  • Make yourself familiar with Facebook so you know what your daughter may encounter while using it.
  • Some adults become their daughter’s Facebook friend so they can monitor her. I think it’s more beneficial to work on a trusting relationship with your daughter so she knows she can come to you if she has a problem.
  • If you suspect your daughter might be a victim, don’t ignore it. Ask her sensitively about your concerns.
  • Parents should alert their daughter’s school to cyber-bullying. The only way to solve the problem is for parents and school staff to work together.
  • Encourage girls to think before they accept a Facebook friend request. Is this a person they would be friends with in the real world?
  • Emphasise the importance of girls setting their Facebook privacy to the highest level so only their friends have access to their page.

Embracing cyber world

Sydney’s The Daily Telegraph ran a disturbing story on the rise of cyber related sexual harassment in our schools recently. 

This story serves as a reminder that we need to equip girls to use technology safely and wisely, and educate all young people on just what is, and is not, acceptable behaviour on line and indeed within our society as a whole. There are a number of sites that offer advice on on-line safety: www.cybersmart.org, www.wiredkids.org, www.wiredsafety.org, www.cyberbully.org, www.besafeonline.org.

Whilst we should exercise caution, what we must not do is get so panicked by stories of cyber-evil that we ban our girls from on-line participation. A recent study by the Australian Clearinghouse for Youthstudies showed that one of the main reasons young people who have been harassed on-line do not report their negative experiences is due to a fear of having their access to technology removed. They want to stay connected and worry that adults who do not fully understand the technology will think banning it is the solution.    

Make no mistake, in our rapidly changing world, connection is vital. All young people need to not only be able to read and write in print media, but to be ‘multi-literate’, to be competent in the manipulation of a range of media. There is considerable evidence that whilst girls are more successful at reading and writing than boys, more girls than boys are in trouble in relation to ICT literacy. NSW Department of Education and Training research tells us that:

..girls (In Australia) were more inclined than boys to see IT as boring (36% compared to 16%) or difficult (23% to 11%). These factors result in more boys than girls studying technology related subjects. Analysis of NSW High School Certificate (HSC) 2002 computer programming student population revealed that only 17% of the total entrants were female. The trend is also demonstrated in the TAFE sector with women comprising approximately 40% of all Information Technology enrolments for 2001. This indicates a decrease in enrolment share from 1996 when women accounted for 50% of IT enrolments.” 

This trend is evident right across Australia and in New Zealand. If it continues, young women are at risk of becoming part of the information-poor and of being excluded from the new and emerging jobs of the future. Let’s not let our own fears drive us to further isolating and limiting our girls. Rather, let’s inspire girls to get savvy and to use IT as a tool to meet their own needs.    

Educator Bronwyn T Williams offered a refreshing approach towards connecting girls who may be reluctant users of IT in her 2006 article for the Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy:

Rather than trying to find ways to help girls use computers in the same ways boys do, how do we help them build on their strengths to find new, creative, and feminist ways of designing and using computers? For example, if girls have been less interested in learning computer programming and software design, including literacy-connected software, perhaps this can be traced to a perception that such work is not relevant to their interests. But when interests such as the desire to build relationships or engage in more character-driven narratives are foregrounded as the goal, girls may be more intrigued…”

If your girls seem uninterested in learning IT skills, use some of the mediums they do enjoy, such as social networking sites, blogging etc as the hook to connect them to the wider possibilities the on-line world allows.

Finally, let’s not lose perspective. Although there are perils in cyber world, there are also some excellent sites (see my “Links”, column right, for some of my favourites) and invaluable opportunities for on-line collaboration. The good far outweighs the bad.

I hope the sites below will inspire you to encourage your girls to be multi-literate. Thanks to Judy O’Connell from blog Hey Jude for the great resources:

I particularly love the Nerd Girls “About” statement: 

Nerd Girls are everywhere, from Tina Fey to Ugly Betty. The celebrity culture of vapid, shallow girls with little to offer is rapidly losing its allure – and the media, from Newsweek to Vanity Fair, has picked up on the emergence of a new type of female role model. Nearly all the tech companies are now offering gadgets designed specifically for girls. Our mantras “Smart is Sexy” and “Brains are Beautiful” have begun to resonate with women across the world. And, as more women seek higher education in technology and engineering fields, Nerd Girls hopes to encourage and empower them make a difference in our world.”

Go nerd girls!

 

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