I will always believe that social media is too easily blamed for society's woes. Social media is about support, guidance, community, compassion, learning, sharing, creativity and about equality and equity.
That said, my work takes me to dark places on social media pretty much every day. I see bullying, harassment, intimidation, stalking, racism, sexism, homophobia, depression, self harm and suicide. I see the very worst of people, and schools and organisations look to me for guidance and support.
Too often the focus is in the wrong places. Those of you who have heard me speak at events or attended my training sessions will know my mantra for years has been; 'Stop demonising children. Be the role models they need and deserve.' Years ago I thought the answer was to focus on the very young children. Target and support the 5 year olds who are at the very beginning of their digital life and teach them to be positive and kind digital citizens. We know children aren't born racists or homophobic. These are learnt behaviours. Yet it has become clear that the world is populated by so many anti social adults - and undoubtedly, social media has provided a voice and a platform for those who wish to put down, criticise and destroy others.
I was mistaken in thinking the focus should be on the young - until we find a way to make adults strive to be role models the challenges will continue, and escalate, for ever. There are many analogies we could draw upon - cigarettes and alcohol are two. Until we removed smoking from public places, television and movies, there were too many smoking role models and ofcourse our young people would choose to smoke. If the only people who smoked cigarettes were those in care homes for the elderly it would be hard to imagine a world where teenagers would want to smoke to be like them.
So, we see adults of all ages who choose to abuse others online. The abuser/victim relationship takes all forms; male/female female/male, male/male female/female and the reasons are too complicated for me to make anything other than broad generalisations, which ultimately aren't much use.
What is clear to me, at the time of writing, is that, I can't clean up the internet. I don't have a plan how to make all the bullies and abusers to become nice people - or to be quiet. This means that we need to look to ways to make the rest of us, the children in our care, more resilient. We need to nurture resilience so they can live in Instagram, Twitter, Gaming message channels, YouTube et al - and have strategies in place when the bad thing happens and the abuse lands in their timeline and inboxes.
In my sessions I make reference to role models and those who show resilience in the face of haters and critics.
I talk about Jade Hameister and the ham and cheese sandwich. It's a great slide to share in schools and there's always a moment when the girls in the class smile and some boys look uncomfortable. It's a thing men do; begrudgingly accept that a female has some physical ability - but not like a real man..
I share this clip of Serena Williams annihilating men on the tennis court in response to the online poll where men were certain they could score a point against Serena Williams in a tennis match. Women may be at the top of their game - but not as good as men.
So we look to Megan Rapinoe addressing the US president and his use of Twitter. Trump clearly unable to respect a woman who will never succumb to his animal magnetism..
More recently I've also shared PaladinAmber the female gamer and streamer who is confidently outing the males who send her the unwanted messages so many women experience across social media from gaming to Linkedin. Twitch viewers harassed Aussie streamer PaladinAmber. She clapped back in the best way
And while we're talking about LinkedIn, here's another example of a confident and qualified woman who men feel a need to offer 'advice' to.
@geologiststephy and the man who thoughts about professional hair.
There's also Kate and Audrey, playing death metal in their home in a village in Japan, without any concern about what others may think or say. My message to young people is always; 'be who you want to be. The opinions of other are not relevant. if they're not trusted friends or family then their comments, views and opinions are of no importance.
In simple terms; you're not pizza - not everyone will like you.
It feels like an achievable message and adults can help young people build their resilience and learn to ignore the comments of others. It's wasted energy and bullies and abusers are unlikely (ever?) to see the error of their ways and become better people. It's clear that the way to modify adults' behavior is through financial payment or the threat of incarceration - and even these are slow to have impact. We still see adults using their phones while driving and we still see adults driving under the influence - so what chance modifying their behaviour online?
But I have doubts. Is ignoring the abusive messages the answer? It is certainly an answer for the individual. Abusers are usually looking for a reaction and to be ignored will prompt them to move on to another victim.
This doesn't offer any solution in terms of wider society. By ignoring the perpetrator are we merely passing the problem on to their next victim?
PaladinAmber shared today, on Twitter, abuse she had received; 'I'll add that this person.. said he'd like to murder me and hopes I get cancer...'
and I replied;
'It's an impotence and frustration with their own lives. When they get any kind of reaction, that's a result and a win. The best strategy is not to acknowledge them at all, ever'
My comment, at time of writing, has received 7 Likes.
PaladinAmber replied to me;
'absolutely not the way to go, people need to be called out and told hey this shit is fucked up, before they're banned and yeeted into time out.'
and this has received, 87 Likes which suggests that (let's not forget Boaty McBoatface and what happens when we look to the internet for opinion) more people think responding to abusers publicly is a better strategy than ignoring them.
What PaladinAmber and the others are doing is very important and in each case the world has stopped for a moment and taken notice. This leads me to question; am I wrong to advocate building resilience by encouraging young people to develop the self control to never respond to hateful and unwanted comments and attention on social media?
But what about the other people? The one's without the skills, the talent, the innate self confidence to physically and emotionally stand up to their online abusers? Are we to suggest that we teach our children to engage in abusive dialogue which will undoubtedly escalate?
I suspect we need to do both. I share examples with young people of those like Jade and Megan Rapinoe as role models so that they can see strong and confident people who believe in themselves. I also encourage them to know when to remain silent online. The power of ignoring a post can not be underestimated. The person who sends the message sits waiting for your response. They've intended to upset you and they're waiting for the reaction. By failing to reply they have a silence, they've been ignored and, is anything more humiliating and belittling than that?
All I know is; until we find a way to nurture confident, creative and resilient digital citizens we will continue to be firefighting incidents of self harm, depression and suicide.