Shame Nation: Choose To Be Part Of “The Solution”

It was July and I was at home when I got a call from my niece.  She and my sister were driving somewhere, and I remember this particular call because it went something like this…

    • “Hey Aunt Stef…you’ve got to check this out…it’s the funniest thing…You remember when we did that show Legally Blonde?  Well there’s this group of young kids, and I guess they did a performance of it too, only their teacher video-taped it and posted it on YouTube and oh my G-d Aunt Stef, it’s awful.  I mean it’s so bad it’s funny.  You’ve got to watch it.  Here let me text you some of it.” 
    • No that’s ok babe, I don’t need to see it”…
    • “Really Aunt Stef, it’s sooo funny, mom watched it and she thought it was hysterical.  I can’t believe their teacher posted this.  It went viral so fast it’s incredible.  Look I know it’s really long but you can fast forward through some of it, I’ll tell you where the funniest parts are”.
    • Honey…how old are these kids?”  
    • “I don’t know…I think they’re in middle school… Look Aunt Stef I’ve got to go, I just texted it to you…watch it later and tell me what you think. You’re going to die laughing…. I love you!!”

I didn’t check it out.  But I also didn’t tell her not to.  And that bothered me.  Something felt really wrong with this video. I was worried about those little kids…I was worried FOR those little kids.  How old were they.  How long had this been going viral, and how many people around the world were laughing at them.  I knew for a fact my niece and her friends at school were…and still, even though it bothered me…I said and did nothing.

When I look back at it now, I think it’s because my niece and her friends weren’t bad or mean kids. Actually quite the opposite. My niece is a gifted and talented young actress studying at a high school for the arts, and I am incredibly proud of her, but for a very different reason. I can say without a doubt that she is one of the nicest, kindest people I know, and she would NEVER deliberately hurt someone!  In fact, she feels things very deeply. Yet she missed this! She didn’t see the pain she and the other people watching and laughing over that video were causing.

How the heck did we get here??? To this place where we can sit in a room and make fun of someone who is not there to defend themselves and have no sense at all that our laughing at them could be hurting them.

That is EXACTLY what nationally recognized speaker, parent advocate, and Internet safety expert Sue Scheff explores with the help of journalist, YA author, and blogger Melissa Schorr in her newly released book Shame Nation: The Global Epidemic of Online Hate. Sue knows firsthand how devastating cyber shaming can be. In 2006 she won a landmark case for Internet defamation and invasion of privacy. Now a leader in the movement against cyber bullying, she focuses on teaching others how to avoid virtual cruelty and how to effectively react when it occurs. 

According to Shame Nation, psychologists point to several factors that have allowed online cruelty like this to flourish:

  • the anonymity of the Internet;
  • the distance, or lack of face-to-face contact, with a victim,
  • mob mentality run amok,
  • lack of gatekeepers and
  • lack of consequences.

Taken together these factors have become known as the “online disinhibition effect”, the notion that people behave far differently online than they would in reality.

But it’s more than that. It’s also due in part to our failure to instill empathy in young people, and Shame Nation explores this as well. Parenting expert Dr. Michele Borba, EdD, author of UnSelfie: Why Empathetic Kids Succeed in Our All-About-Me World makes a strong case that a decrease in basic empathy has created a culture ripe for online attacks. The inability to see those on the other side of the computer screen as people deserving of our compassion is a huge driver. Instead of feeling sad for their pain, we make it funny. We sit at home and watch the “People of Walmart” and laugh as people are publicly shamed. You don’t see or feel the hurt…it’s so far removed, it’s not “real”.

That was what happened with the middle-school performance of Legally Blonde.  My niece missed the ball on this one.  There was an opportunity to be an “Upstander” …not just a bystander…or worse, add to the teasing and humiliation, and she missed it.  But whose fault was that really?  If I’m being honest, it was mine

I’m the adult, I set the example. This means I and the other adults in her life need to know what’s happening out in the cyber-world so I can educate her.  So she knows what to look for to avoid becoming a victim…or inadvertently a bully.

And while we’re on this subject, I know some of you may be thinking “lock her in her room and for anything other than schoolwork, shut off the internet and all those damn devices” is the answer. But while it may sound good on paper, realistically, I can’t tell her to stay off-line. No-one can. For better or worse, this is a connected world we live in…all of us… kids and adults. Going off the grid is just not an option – and it won’t save her. As Nancy Jo Sales describes in her book American Girls: Social Media and the Secret Lives of Teenagers, “I spoke to girls who said, “Social media is destroying our lives.  But we can’t go off it, because then we’d have no life.”

So my niece is on the grid (and I am guessing if you are reading this, so is a child you care about), and she is not getting off any time soon – not as a child, and realistically not as an adult.  But I can help her. I can:

  • Teach her how to avoid trouble: give her guidelines for online sharing; show her how to protect her online identify and run regular checkups to make sure no-one is damaging her reputation
  • Teach her how to control a disaster if things go wrong: how to document, block, report and identify someone trying to harm her.
  • Teach her how to get support: to take advantage of resources like HeartMob and Crisis Text Line and Online SOS…and know there are systems in place providing help, from simple letters of support to full-on legal aid, if she finds herself a victim of a digital attack.

Because that’s what I learned from Shame Nation: The Global Epidemic of Online Hate

And finally, I can Teach her to be an Upstander. I can explain what that word is, why it’s important to stand-up for someone else.  And then I can apologize for not doing that…and for failing her and those kids. And that’s when I realized if I didn’t do something right at that moment, I would be failing them both again.

So I picked up the phone and called her.  And it was a difficult call. Because while it was about something she had done, in truth, it was more about what I hadn’t done. And my very sensitive niece brought up an excellent argument – one I’m betting every one of you will have to deal with at some point, because it’s really fundamental to the Upstander / bystander question:

  • “But Aunt Stef, I don’t think there’s really anything I could have done…there were millions of people…that post went viral”.

She had a point – but then again, that’s the battle every single person faces when they’re being bullied online.  They’re one person and it feels like they’re fighting the world. That’s what made this book so insightful, and so powerful, at least for me.  What do you do…what can you do…if you come up against this situation…  Whether you are living this or just witnessing this.  This was my answer…

“Well, hon, what do you think about this”…and I gave her an example I had read (thank you Sue) about a heavy-set middle-aged man who was being publicly humiliated.  All he did was dance at a local bar with friends, but someone captured it on video and posted it and the rude comments started coming in from all over.  Until two women in LA created a #FindDancingMan twitter campaign, said “I’d dance with that guy”, and created a movement that turned the shaming into a party of compassion.

    • “I’m not saying you have to create a “dancing man campaign” but do you think you and your friends could come up with something creative that might make those kids feel even just a little bit better?”

     

      • I don’t know…maybe”.

And just like that, this HUGE weight came off my shoulders.  She didn’t have to have an answer… that wasn’t the magic pill here.  She’s a brilliant kid with a big heart and this hit home.  I stood up for those kids…and for her …and I think when she has an opportunity, she will stand up for someone else.

It has to start somewhere…  That day, it started with us…

About the Author

Stefanie Zucker is President and co-founder of Pediatric Medical Devices and Managing Director and co-founder of Axios Partners, a strategy consulting firm. After a number of years spent researching the safety issues associated with transporting children on ambulances she became a child health safety advocate and formed Pediatric Safety with a goal of creating a world-wide movement of parents and caregivers inspired to protect the health and safety of kids.

Stefanie is a member of the PedSafe Team

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