Lessons from a teen’s, a parent’s, a school’s mistakes

Really the mistakes of all of us – including the news media, policymakers, law enforcement, and so-called online-safety advocates – in creating this echo chamber

By Anne Collier

As a fellow parent put it, “It blows me away that she got suspended for telling it like it is (from her perspective).” He was talking about the story of high school freshman Jessica Barba, who – for a school assignment – created a video and Facebook profile of a fictional 12-year-old who, the story goes, committed suicide because she was bullied. The real-life drama continued when some “concerned parent” saw the fake profile but apparently not the disclaimers in it that this was fiction and called her local police, who called the school, which subsequently suspended Jessica for five days, later unsuspending her during a hearing held while Jessica and her parents appeared on NBC’s Today Show. [Adding absurdity to the pile of mistakes on just about everybody’s part, including news reporters’, author Judith Warner wrote in Time.com that the “outrage” in all this was how her teachers would “allow this girl, like so very many of her peers, to reach nearly the end of 10th grade without a solid grasp of written English.” Really, Ms. Warner, this was your main takeaway?]

By all accounts, Jessica was honestly “telling it like it is” – in a school assignment – from her perspective. Of course she shouldn’t be punished for that, and that part of the story had a happy ending. She was allowed back to school and the suspension was erased from her school record. But her perspective illustrated the most important takeaway from this experience: how it parroted back the misinformation, hyperbole, and fear her generation has been fed by (probably mostly well-meaning but) misinformed reporters, policymakers, school officials, and Internet-safety advocates. Very unfortunately, I’m hearing more and more kids echoing the misinformation they and their parents have been getting.

Echo chamber of dangerous messaging

For example, Jessica’s video suggests she learned somewhere that suicide naturally follows bullying, which is dangerously simplistic – not a message that should be spread. I doubt she’d take much comfort in this, but her video has something in common with the recently released film Bully, supposedly one of the more “sensitive” accounts of this age-old problem. Here’s how the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention put it: Bully is an example of “an increasingly pervasive media narrative that portrays youth suicide as a normative and rational response to being bullied. In addition to misinforming the public, there is considerable evidence that such narratives can spark imitative behavior in vulnerable individuals, a phenomenon referred to as suicide contagion.” As a society, we must not create an echo chamber of dangerous messaging, especially where suicide is concerned. Jessica’s video represents the echo.

Adults need a ‘filter’ too!

Another important takeaway from this story is how much more intelligently we’ll be able to work with young people if we don’t take what we see in their online communication and expression at face value or in a vacuum. There’s usually offline context to what happens online – it’s embedded in everyday life, and for young people, school life, sociality, and relationships. Facebook isn’t a context, really; life is the context for what happens in FB. Jessica’s online video and fake Facebook profile were for a school assignment.

“Because of the digital revolution, we each need to develop better filters, screens and BS detectors to sort through the information blizzard of daily life,” writes author, speaker and digital-age consultant Don Tapscott in Part 3 of his “Living Out Loud” series at HuffingtonPost.com.

So we don’t need just to teach our kids to develop those filters, but ourselves as well. And we’re applying that filter to a much broader range of content. Our children are learning to apply it to their peers’ social content in whatever media (as are their peers to theirs) as well as professionally produced content, and we’re learning to apply it to our children’s expression and communication in media as much as to those of our peers, whether personal or professional. This is media literacy now, right? And it needs to be applied not only to what’s in-coming but also to what’s out-going – what we’re producing, sharing, texting, etc. By the nature of today’s media, whether used by a 15-year-old or a 50-year-old, it can’t easily be separated from social literacy or digital literacy, and it requires healthy doses of both critical thinking and compassion.

Related links

* My earlier post about the film Bully and why it should not be shown in schools
* “Personal ‘brand management’ for social literacy”
* “In our networked world, 3 literacies melting into 1″
* “School libraries: Vital filter developers”

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