07 April 2014

Meanness, Vulnerability and Social Media (a mother's rant)

All he wanted for Christmas was an iPod 5. After much negotiation, a handy discount and some birthday money thrown in, we wrapped up the device and put it under the Christmas Tree.

(He's 11, off to Intermediate, all his friends have them).

There were rules of course. No Facebook. A private profile on Instagram. We know his passwords, follow his feed and regularly screen his posts, checking for swearing, bullying, rudeness and other dodgyness in the posts of those he follows. Anyone we see doing anything less than kosher is immediately deleted and blocked. And if he were to be found participating in anything dodgy? He would lose his right to an Instagram account. Those are the rules, which he agreed to and followed.

So my feed is dotted with his selfies, and we check his account on a regular basis. A few people have been deleted along the way - some swearing, some minor rudeness - enough to block them but nothing sinister.
Until last night.

He comes into the kitchen holding his ipod, his shoulders slumped.
"I've just been bullied on Instagram..." he says.
Parenting protective radar kicks in.
We grab the device and pepper him with questions: who? what? how?

It seems that no matter how many rules and boundaries you put in place to protect your child, nothing can completely shield them from meanness that gets personal.

We're not even talking trolls or cyber-stalkers here, but a couple of immature kids who once played on his football team.

It all started with one of those silly "vote them out" games kids play on IG. Someone puts up a collage of faces, tags in a bunch of their friends and then invites people to "vote them out". The last kid standing gets TEN CENTS and winner's kudos. Ha. Silly, right?
Yes, but not harmless. Not when you vote someone out and they turn on you with viciousness in a personal attack. Then it's not a silly game for ten cents and bragging rights - then it can be crushing.

"F U Dash! Your just a stupid crybaby who cries every time they get beat in soccer!"

It was like a knife to the heart when I read what that boy wrote. He has no idea what my child goes through or what it has taken to get to the place where he can manage his emotions. He has a vulnerability, an Achilles heel (most of us do) and that boy turned a silly game into a personal attack on a weak point.

It hurts to be judged. It hurts to be misunderstood.
All of us have been there at times, and the online world is riddled with people who are quick to judge and quick to condemn. That makes it a potentially dangerous place for those who are vulnerable.

I'm not at liberty to share with you Dash's struggle (though he has bravely shared with his whole class, he doesn't want me to "tell the whole world" here on my blog, so I respect his wishes). Suffice it to say that the message that boy posted so publicly on Instagram calling my son a cry baby attacked him right where he wears no armour.

Another boy joined in at that point, agreeing with the first boy. Both previous team-mates. Both boys who had seen my son in his weakness and judged him for it.
(I deleted and blocked both boys immediately. Dash just doesn't need people like that looking over his shoulder, commenting on his life and judging it).

Afterwards, as I rubbed my son's back and tried to let words of encouragement pour oil on his wounds I talked to him about how far he's come, how hard he's worked, how much progress he's made.
How he doesn't need to let other people's judgement take away from who he is.

This article makes me sick to my stomach - the author has obviously never experienced depression or
she would never have written such a pile of nasty drivel. Poor Charlotte Dawson,
still hounded and misunderstood even when she's dead. Shame on you Deborah Hill Cone! But then she apologises here -
after getting a rather awful taste of Charlotte's medicine in the backlash that followed -
which goes to show that what goes around comes around. Well done Deborah Hill Cone. Apology accepted.

And I told him the story of Charlotte Dawson. Hounded by trolls and the media. More vulnerable than most to nastiness, as the Black Dog of depression chased her down. If only she could have not listened to those who were kicking her where she was weakest (deleted her Twitter account?) then maybe she wouldn't have gotten so low that she took her own life.

But sometimes we are drawn back to the source of the pain, like a mouth ulcer we just can't help poking our tongue into. We can't leave it alone. And for people like poor Charlotte whose vulnerability is out in the open for all the world to see, they are sitting ducks for the nasty side of human nature.

There's nothing I hate more than meanness and bullying. I despise it.
I know that it is out there in the world, running rampant through social media and the schoolyard - so what will my response be in order to protect my children?
Will I throw the baby out with the bathwater, and delete my son's Instagram account completely because there is a chance he might come across meanness? Because he is more vulnerable than most?
I will if I have to but at this point I think we can both learn a lot from the experience.

We can keep doing what we've been doing. Keep a close eye on things, talk things through, respond quickly and model wisdom, common sense and kindness.
We can give good advice (and then follow it ourselves): Keep the mean rude people as far away from you as possible. Pick and choose your friends carefully (both online and in real-life). Don't invite trouble. Don't engage in debate with people who misjudge you and say cruel things - walk away and cut those meanies out of your life. Don't repay back evil for evil, because then they have succeeded in dragging you down to their level.

I told Dash I don't want him joining in those Instagram games anymore. He can't help it if people tag him, but I don't want him to participate. No voting. No commenting.

Social media can be fun but it can turn nasty in seconds. Vote out the wrong person on a silly game and they can turn on you, kicking you where it hurts.

Social media is a huge part of today's landscape; There is meanness in the online world and there are bullies; I want my son to learn how to cope with both when he comes across them, rather than run screaming for the hills and simply ban everything.

Social media in and of itself is neutral - it's as evil or as good as the people using it.
My job as a parent is to guide my child through the minefield and teach him how to conduct himself well and bounce back from the knocks while providing boundaries to protect him as much as possible.

What would you have done in this situation? Have you experienced any cyber bullying - either you or your kids? What has been your response?

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