After the jury announced its verdict in New Jersey I watched Associated Press video statement read by Tyler Clementi’s father. Sad and clearly with a heavy heart, he nevertheless looked to the future in a way that most of us could not have done had we lost a child the way he lost Tyler. Then I glanced down at the YouTube comments — just about every one included a gay slur or offensive language, and I was disgusted. The comments were not relevant.
Racist and hateful online comments demean writers, video-makers, and people who thoughtfully share digital content. It’s becoming tiresome. Masquerading as run-of-the-mill responses at the end of articles and videos – they are actually cyber-bullies’ remarks left here and there with the goal of offending and hurting others. The time has long past for comment and blog editors everywhere — but especially at Google’s YouTube — to set up and enforce guidelines.
I know that the United States Constitution guarantees freedom of speech; however, it’s not freedom of speech we are observing but the freedom to run off at the mouth and bully others in ways that are not relevant to the content. As a result we are teaching all sorts of silent lessons — the kind we don’t really intend to teach to young people as they grow up.
While it’s hard to stereotype bullying behavior in every school in every town in America, experts agree that at least 25 percent of students across the nation are bullied in traditional ways: hit, shoved, kicked, gossiped about, intimidated or excluded from social groups.
The article mentions and links to several programs that have been successful at reducing bullying behavior. Swearer, who is an associate professor of school psychology at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln, points out that, “…when awareness of bullying becomes as much a part of school culture as reverence for athletics or glee club, we’ll have a shot at finally stopping it.”
No words console a family when a child dies, especially a loss caused by cruel and bigoted peers who don’t comprehend digital world distinctions between right and terribly wrong. A much-loved boy, a gifted musician, a young man who made others smile and relax with beautiful music — and whose sexual identity was no one’s business but his own, even in the confusing milieu of a freshman college dorm — is dead.
For the rest of us — parents, teachers, religious leaders, and other adults — much can be said. Tyler Clementi’s suicide dramatically illustrates, yet again, the youth disconnect between privacy as we knew it in the past and the increasingly few layers that protect us today. With no clear definition of privacy, children, adolescents, and even young adults perceive few behavior boundaries –those lines in the sand that delineate the ethical from the unethical, the fun from the vicious. How many more children do we have to lose?
An article in today’s New York Times, Online Bullies Pull Schools into the Fray, describes the enormous difficulties that texting, e-mail, Facebook, and other unlimited online activities cause for Middle School students, their parents, and their schools. Take some time to read it and reflect.
My reflection leads me to think that while cyber-bullying is the immediate problem, the larger issue is the need to change the way parents and their children think about digital tools. While me must always address problems, it seems way too late to effectively change errant digital behavior in Middle School if students have not received years of training in the art of digital citizenship long before they arrive in sixth grade.
Behavior and digital behavior go hand-in-hand. Parents regularly address civil, polite, and respectful behavior from the moment a child arrives at his or her first play-group. Does digital behavior get the same parental attention? The moment a child sits at a computer or sees mom and dad working on e-mail, the citizenship lessons should extend to the digital world. If the conversation does not start until a child gets a phone that texts and takes pictures — an entertaining toy from perspective of the youngster — it is way to late.