Target: US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, school administrators and parents
Goal: Teach media literacy and social-emotional learning curricula to help students navigate the murky waters of social media and combat digital abuse
On September 19th, a 14-year-old boy from New York named Jamey Rodemeyer committed suicide, hounded to death by bullies. Last year Jamey had recorded a video for the LGTB teen series, “It Gets Better,” in an attempt to give other gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered teens hope that life gets better. However, Jamey’s hope and life that fateful fall day under a relentless onslaught of in-person and online bullying. A recent Associated Press-MTV poll shows that most teens and 20-somethings dismiss online offensive words and name-calling as jokes. 71% of American youth said people are more likely to use slurs online or in text messages than in person, 55% testified to seeing people being mean to others in social media, 51% encounter discriminatory words or images on social networking sites, and only about 50% say they are likely to ask someone to stop using such language online.
While youngsters might not feel courageous enough to speak out against online slurs, the AP-MTV poll shows that a significant majority of 14-24 aged youth are upset by several pejoratives—especially when they identify with the targeted group. 75% of young people considered digital abuse a serious problem. These hurtful words are emotionally traumatic and, in extreme cases like Jamey Rodemeyer’s death, lead to victims’ self-loathing and “bullycide.” Schools and parents must teach media literacy and social-emotional learning curricula to help students navigate the murky waters of social media and combat digital abuse.
Unfortunately, a deplorable lacuna of social-emotional learning in our schools and society has normalized racist and sexist derogatory language as jokes or attempts to act cool. 56% of polled youth have been the target of online taunting, harrassment, or bullying; another 75% of youth think that people say or do things online that they wouldn’t do or say face to face. 33% admit involvement in sexting, the sharing of nude photos or videos of sexual activity, and 40% of youth in a relationship say that their partners have used computers or cellphones to abuse or control them. 57% of the polled 14- to 24-year olds brushed off online discriminatory language as people “trying to be funny,” and about 50% felt that the writers “really hold hateful feelings about the group.” The egregious lack of empathy is revealed in the dichotomy of youth who would (not) feel offended if they read demeaning online slurs:
- Only 44% said they be very/extremely offended if they read the “N-word” online or in a text; 60% of African American youth said they would be offended if they read the N-word used against other people. However, only 33% of surveyed youth said that discriminatory words about African Americans are most often intended as hurtful, contrasted with 66% thinking they are mostly jokes.
- Roughly 33% consider “slut” seriously offensive: Only 28% of men consider the slur deeply offensive compared to 41% of women. However, 65% of women consider the pejorative deeply offensive if it’s used against them specifically. 75% thought slurs against women were generally meant to be funny.
- Merely 23% of the sampled youth were seriously offended by “fag,” but 39% of those who are gay or know someone who is homosexual were seriously offended. 67% commonly see “that’s so gay” as a put down, and the majority aren’t offended by the pejorative usage at all.
- 50% of teens don’t think demeaning something as “retarded” is even moderately bothersome, compared with 27% who are seriously offended.
17-year-old high school senior Robert Leader describes the desensitizing effect of of ugly words abounding on electric screens: “It’s caused people to loosen their boundaries on what’s not acceptable.” Social media has insinuated itself into teen America’s daily fabric, with 70% accessing social media and 80% texting a friend in the previous week. Schools and parents must teach our youth the profound extent of power they wield when they log onto the internet or text a friend. Urge school administrators and families across US communities to combat cyberbullying and bullycide before more American youth lose their self-esteem and their lives.
Dear Secretary Duncan, school administrators and parents:
Cyberbullying Research Center co-director Sameer Hinduja found that middle school and high school students endure a cyberbullying victimization rate of 20-25%, especially as computers and cellphones increase the reach of old-fashioned bullying. In addition, technologically facilitated dating abuse drives many youth into controlling and unhealthy relationships. Nearly 3 in 10 youth say that a partner has electronically checked up on them multiple times per day or read text messages without permission. 14% say that they’ve experienced more abusive behavior, name-calling, and mean messages from their partners via internet or cellphone. Alarmingly, while many young people feel the sting of cyberbullying barbs, they unaccountably excuse their own derogatory digital language as off-color humor. Schools and families possess the moral and disciplinary authority to delete cyberbullying and demonstrate that online slurs are no joke. I respectfully petition educators and parents to take a page out of advocate Matt Levinson’s book (From Fear to Facebook: One School’s Journey) and teach students healthy internet behavior.
- Listen to students, taking their concerns and interests seriously. Support an environment where students can be heard.
- Partner with parents so everyone is on the same page in terms of computer use.
- Remember that kids are kids, and need guidance from their teachers and parents—even when they make mistakes and test boundaries.
- Keep learning with your students as technology moves forward at lightning speeds.
- Find a balance between keeping students safe with digital media and introducing imaginative possibilities.
Teaching students respect as a life skill and in the context of internet etiquette is a difficult but worthwhile proposition. As the internet and social networking sites increase opportunities for bullies to abuse their victims, I urge educators and parents to impart tolerance to American youth as they explore the digital frontier. Relegating online literacy and social-emotional learning to ancillary education is inadequate in the pervasive and pernicious social media environment in which our students operate. US school officials and parents must integrate dedicated and thoughtful educational components into the daily curriculum to address cyberbullying and digital abuse. Sticks and stones may break one’s bones, but words may cut more deeply.
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