Thursday, December 6, 2012

If Being a Teen Doesn't Make You Want to Cut Yourself, Try Being a Teen RIGHT NOW

The worst time of my life was probably seventh grade.

I mean, it was the worst time of my life apart from the time a couple of years ago. That was when I was savagely attacked, in-person and online, for the pettiest thing ever (I dared to say I was "dismayed" by a hostile, political speech in school. This after the one thing I said I didn't want to hear was a hostile, political speech). I had my career damaged and my name dragged through the mud and I got tons of death threats. I was cyberbullied as a grownup! And yes, it made me want to hurt myself. But anyway. It's all material. I used that material (book forthcoming). I have tried to make the best of it.

That nastiness aside, what still matters now to all of us is that seventh grade, if we force ourselves to remember it, bites the big one. Most of us can agree on that.

It's a nowhere grade at a frustrating age. It's zits and braces, uncoolness and unrequited love, and a horribly early curfew. It's realizing that no, you are not the smartest kid in school any longer, and life is just going to get hard from here on in, and oh yeah, you have five hours of homework every night.

Seventh grade sucked back in the early 1980s (and any other time, I'm sure). But seventh grade seriously sucks right now. 

Why? Two words: social networking. Or, comment boards. Or, anonymous incivility. Or, the Interwebs. Or, smart phones.

We didn't have that stuff when I was 13. Thank the Lord. The worst we had were prank calls on princess phones, or passing notes and giving each other dirty looks in the classroom. And that was bad enough. That was pure pain.

Photo from 12/6/2012 Jezebel.com (see link below)

Imagine the extent of the pain now, when countless, faceless creeps can send scary messages right to your inbox, or post to your Facebook wall, or spread rumors about you on comment boards or publish your address for the world to see. These freaky people, conveniently hiding behind nicknames and avatars, can say the worst things about you, and those things might be true or they might be false, but guess what? It doesn't matter because that hell will follow you everywhere. 

It never goes away. You can't crumple and burn these notes. Even if you're only in seventh grade now, those nasty words can get forwarded ad infinitum. They will live forever in the Google cache.  Maybe your tormentors might even threaten to go to your employer with some of their slander. They do that, you know. The haters feed off each other, one-upping the pain, taking it as far as they think can go. 

Need examples? In the news lately have been stories about the infamous Oberlin College Confessional (comment board now defunct? Also see Obie Talk and for more info, visit http://jezebel.com/5965733/oberlin-has-a-nasty-anonymous-message-board-problem). 

Certain alums have been victims of hateful, horrific mudslinging, name calling, etc. I felt physical pain when I read about this. I was horrified to read the disgusting things people were writing about their peers. After reading, I had to ask that classic question: Why?

Why do people do this to each other? Just because they can? Because other people are doing it? Because it's amusing? Because it makes them feel powerful?

The answers to "why?" do not matter, however. It's pointless to ask why. People never know why they act like savage morons, and they'd likely deny that they did (act like savage morons, that is).

All we can do is say, as people have been saying for time immemorial, if you wouldn't like someone to do that to you, don't do it to another person. We can learn this important lesson way before college. We can learn it before seventh grade--although seventh grade can be the height of meanness. I know: I have a seventh-grader and I have seen some of the horrific stuff the seventh grade is writing about each other.

But for right now, consider how you would feel to have some idiot kid write that you are a "retarded whore" who should die. Imagine that other people chimed in after this (as happened on the Oberlin boards, and as happens routinely in middle school). Picture this going on for years and years of schooling...with the trail of hate following you every day.

This is what it's often like to be a teenager right now: constant status updates, text messages 200 times a day, hours upon hours spent social networking and reading and writing bad stuff about other people. 

It's soul crushing. It's time-wasting. It's hell on earth.

What if you were the parent of a teen who'd been through this? Many parents will tell you they had no idea what was really going on. No idea that people could be so brazenly horrible to one another. No idea who was doing it, or how it could be stopped.

Going to the "authorities" tends to do a little bit less than nothing. We have the right to free speech, after all. We have freedom of expression.  We have the Constitutional right to be assholes who wantonly destroy the life and/or sanity of innocent others. We don't want to take away those rights. Do we?

After I read about Oberlin--where, full disclosure, I originally wanted to attend college, but I never applied because I had the Interview from Hades, wherein a student interviewer yelled at me that I "must be a racist" because I'd worked as a lifeguard at a certain country club; I was traumatized and shocked and crossed Oberlin off my list--I saw in another comment that my own alma mater, Sarah Lawrence, had a notorious board. It's called SLCanon, and I checked it out. It's actually not too bad (some recent comments say that's just because it "got boring," so I have no idea how bad it might have been). 

I was relieved to see mature, thoughtful postings from SLC students about why making anonymous comments is stupid and cowardly and something only "losers" do.

Comments such as: "This website caused so much crisis last time around, so why would people do this again? We are not Regina, Gretchen, and Karen out of "Mean Girls." We left high school to escape this petty, harmful shit, so it should not continue in college. The idea of online gossiping is immature and ridiculous. Grow up, people..." http://sarahlawrence.livejournal.com/1134692.html

So that link (above) might be old. It seems this board keep dying and being reborn like some type of insidious phoenix, but the point is that the SLC kids (most of them?) seem to get that anonymous online commentary is just a bunch of troublesome, time-wasting snark borne of self-hatred.

"Don't worry about what other people are saying about you. Be happy!" the SLC kids are saying.

Good advice. I am glad to see that they understand the situation. Now, if only we can get the younger kids logging off and going to meditation class and being jolly, loving people who only see the best in each other.

In the meantime, kids are slashing their wrists because of Facebook and Tumblr and livejournal and their iPhones. I could tell you stories--stories I know all too well.

Yes, it's that serious. But until it happens to you or someone you love, will you do anything about it besides shrug and sniff, "Well, that's too bad, but it's what happens when you dare to be an individual who leaves the house and attends school and has a Facebook account. It's all your own fault..."?

No, it's NOT your own fault, I want to tell these kids; it's the fault of the masses acting like evil sheeple and attacking others to distract from their own faults. It is your fault, however, if you keep doing this to others when you've experienced the pain yourself.

It's absurd to think that we can make ourselves feel better by making others feel bad.

Meanwhile, our electronic age and all the tech tools at our disposal mean it's seventh grade all the time, everywhere.

Could it get any worse? Please don't answer that.

As my own personal activism against cyberbullying, I have a rule: I don't make anonymous comments about other people. I have been through seventh grade, and I've been on the receiving end of hundreds of scary e-mails and blog comments. I've witnessed others going through it, too.

I don't write nasty things about people when I am online--especially people I don't know. It is the least I can do to make the world a better place.

What will you do? How will you help? We have to do something.





4 comments:

  1. Found this excellent comment on a blog about Obie Talk and it seems relevant to your post, as well:

    Tweeting and postings about individuals is enough to send many over the edge in Asia. Posters on sites such as Obietalk must realize that they absolutely contribute to the mental well-being of students they talk about, and that they also can be a catalyst for someone's misery. If it empowers someone to be disrespectful and abusive regarding another, that is the person who needs help. If one is of a sensitive nature and seeks acceptance from others, being on Obietalk is perhaps not for them, but being with a few good friends definitely is. Again, posters, be aware that you have an effect for good or for bad and the world is full of enough nonsense and shit for everyone that a positive contribution can be literally a life-saver.

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  2. Thanks, I should clarify that I have no personal connection to Obie Talk (although I am getting supportive notes from Oberlin students who are equally appalled by Obie Talk and the fact that it runs on the Oberlin server).

    This post is about the psychological stress caused--as you point out--by hateful, gossipy, anonymous comments. It's NOT about what specifically happened to me--although it certainly could be.

    I was inspired to write this after seeing my own kid start to deal with some of this, and after reading about the Oberlin board, and after realizing that most colleges have these forums, and they are all very, very scary.

    This is me empathizing. We all need to empathize.

    Best,

    Elizabeth

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  3. I don't really think there is something to make it stop. There are too many variables. Unless we decide to brainwash, brainwash, brainwash...

    As long as there are differences, we'll find some reason to hat one another. Children don't care who they hurt. They don't care about consequences until they get older and find out they could spend time in a cell for their actions.

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  4. What do you mean about brainwashing?

    It is true that kids tend not to think about, or care much about, consequences.

    Best,

    EC

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