Teens’ own (wise) perspectives on life with social media

By Anne Collier

As panelists at Safer Internet Day US 2014 in Washington, D.C., high school students Arielle Ampeh (from Va.), Will Ashe (Va.), Zoe Parks (Ill.), David Rojas Rosario (D.C.), Hannah Thompson (D.C.), and Dursey Wade (Mich.) had a broad-ranging conversation about their experiences in all kinds of social media. But if you watch the video or keep reading, you’ll probably notice, as I did sitting in the audience, that technology, to them, was just blended in to a conversation that was really about life, relationships and growing up – though they were happy to zoom in on it because we asked them to. Meanwhile, they work, play, mentor their peers, seek support, help their siblings, respect themselves and their parents (but are candid about the limitations of adults’ help) and generally lead very busy lives. It was a privilege to be exposed to their candor and wisdom as they thought through some challenging questions out loud together.

Senator Charles Schumer with student panel at U.S. Safe

Senator Charles Schumer with student panel at U.S. Safer Internet Day (photo: Sarah Baker)

The conversation – with moderator Dan Tynan of Yahoo Tech and peers and adults in the audience – lasted for well over an hour, so I’m really just scratching the surface with the following highlights. You’ll see that there’s a lot about cyberbullying here. That’s because, when Dan asked about it, the discussion really began to flow – though it was about all forms of harassment and social aggression, which have all come to be called “cyberbullying,” it seems. So Dan hardly had to say a word after 20 minutes or so. The panelists said they feel it’s a very negative subject that adults focus on too much, but they clearly wanted to talk it through together, so some of their most interesting and insightful comments were on that very subject and are captured here:

Is the Internet unsafe?

Zoe: “The world is not completely safe. There are dangers in everything that you do. It’s about doing the right thing and trusting yourself to know that you can do the right thing – not putting yourself in a situation where you’re talking to some 75-year-old guy that you think is a 12-year-old and is not. I think it’s all about the person that you are and how you represent yourself on the Net.”

Will: “I think Zoe made a good point – it’s about the person that you are, and it’s also … about what you put out there. So if you play it safe, then the Internet is generally a pretty safe place – it’s hard to go wrong…. It’s set up to be used properly, but it’s also easy to be used improperly.”

Arielle: “I don’t think it’s any more or less safe than the real world is, but I think there are a lot of people who think it’s safer than the real world. I think that’s what makes it unsafe,” she said, referring to a false sense of security.

Hannah: “I think it’s as safe as you make it. You choose how much information you put out there. If you put your whole life out there, it’s not safe, but if you monitor, keep in check who you’re talking to, what you’re saying, it can be safe and a good thing.”

David: “I don’t think the Net is unsafe it’s just the people who use it for negative reasons, for example catfishing” (people pretending to be someone they’re not online) who make it unsafe.

What advice would you give a younger sibling about using the Net?

Zoe: “Anything you put up on the Internet is there forever; think about how you’re representing yourself…. A lot of social media is like, ‘In this moment I feel like this… Which is great, it can be funny, but … in another moment it’s not so funny. Other people don’t know you. They know you by what you put up, so just keeping in mind who you are and who you want to represent yourself as.”

Have any of you experienced cyberbullying personally or know people who have?

Hannah: “I’ve seen Twitter fights or subtweeting, where everybody knows what you’re talking about, but you [the people tweeting insults] can’t get in trouble because [you] don’t use [your] name. I’ve seen that happening before – almost like people gossiping, only online.”

Will: “There was a hashtag going around a while ago called #letsmakeitawkward and it was basically calling out various people who’d done various things. You could get a vague understanding of what these people did from the tweets, it was indirect but still making a statement about a person. I was seeing it from other schools in the county, not my own. And these are people I don’t know. It’s similar to gossiping but at the same time broadcasting to a much larger audience, and people who don’t know the person can laugh and retweet and aid in the broadcasting of the cyberbullying.”

What advice would you give to someone who was harassed?

Zoe: “I think the biggest thing is, you choose how you feel, and yeah, when people are being really mean to you, it does hurt, and sometimes it’s really hard to be, like, ‘ok, you think that, that’s a personal problem that you feel that way, but it doesn’t affect who I am and who I will be.’ It’s really hard, but I think that’s the most important thing. When you get upset, when you retaliate and get really angry, you’ve given that person power over you. You’re mad – that’s what they wanted, they wanted to hurt your feelings. But if you go, ‘Ok, that’s cool, you can feel that way,’ then you’ve released yourself from that, I feel.” From the audience, a student responded to her comment: “Yes, be the bigger person. She said that beautifully, I just want to compliment her on that.”

Will: “If someone’s being mean, “I would go for the approach of just posting, ‘Cool, I’m glad you think that.’ Then there’s not even the chance of them thinking that you didn’t like their comment. Regardless of whether it got to you, it’s putting on the face of what William [Bowens, a student from Detroit in the audience] was saying of not caring at all. More often than not, stopping bullying is about putting on the face of not caring.”

Arielle: “I think … you are putting yourself out there a little bit [to a higher] level of susceptibility when you agree to join these kinds of networks, and you have to be careful about what you’re putting up and what people are seeing about you, because if you put up things that can hurt, then people are going to use them against you, and you have to be very careful.”

On the other hand, a young person in the audience said that someone online also “might help you, might make you stronger.”

Dursey: “That is a major thing … because I’m that person for a lot of my friends. People come to me and talk to me, saying, ‘Dursey, some guy did this and this,’ and I’m like, ‘Well, what do you plan to do about it? Do you plan on being a bigger person, or do you plan on being the worse person and stooping to his level?’ There’s various things you can do [to deal with harassment], and talking, for me, has been the most effective with peers that I counsel.”

Gregory Cunningham in the audience (from Southfield School District in Detroit): “Some people are scared to talk…. Personally, I kind of deal with it internally. I don’t think everybody’s [comfortable with talking] like that…. Just don’t let it get to you, because if it gets to you, you’re giving that person power over you, and if you give them that power, and they can keep going, it’s like a cycle, and sometimes people being victimized turn into bullies themselves to other people just to get out how they’re feeling, so it’s a cycle and we should end it.”

About talking to a trusted adult about a bullying situation, as youth are so often advised to do:

Will: “I think a vulnerability of teens is, we don’t want to be dependent on our parents, so that makes bullying our problem to solve. I know when I have a problem with a teacher, I don’t want to tell my dad because the first thing he wants to do is go try to deal with it and get it resolved as quickly as possible. I know I want to try to deal with it first, and it’s the same way with bullying. As kids and teens are growing up, they want to be more … on their own, and they often apply that to situations where that may not be the best thing for them, so they want to take care of it on their own but don’t know how to take care of it well. So nothing happens or it doesn’t work out or only gets worse. But they never get to that point where they feel like reaching out to parents or adults.”

David: “But there’s a negative with that…. There’s this phrase, ‘Snitches get stitches,’ where if you talk to an adult it’ll just get bigger and cause more trouble than it actually is.”

From the audience, Xitlali Guadalupe Avila from Chicago: “Adding to what David said, my sister used to be bullied back in 8th grade, and when our mom found out about it, it made everything worse. My mom went to the school to try to find out who that girl was, went to the principal, tried to talk to her parents. I said, ‘Mom, you’re making this into a bigger problem.’ She made my sister look like a sissy, and they bullied her even more…. But I also felt like a parent because when I found out about it, I was just there, like nobody’s going to touch my sister. It finally stopped, but it took some time for it to stop.”

Dursey: A lot depends on “the type of relationship you have with [adults in your life] – whether you are comfortable enough to talk with the parent. For me personally, I feel more comfortable speaking to my peers. I talk with my friends about everything. I feel more comfortable talking with them about my problems as they do with me.”

Arielle referred to the different kind of power differential there is online: “There’s no way for your parents to be bigger than the bully online … and [if parents try to intervene] the bully can … bully you about your parents.”

What about bystanders? Can they help resolve bad situations?

Will: “I think the bystander problem comes from the fact that, with cyberbullying, there’s anonymity, so nobody knows you’re the bystander,” he said referring to the kind that encourages rather than stops bullying. “Nobody knows you’re partaking in and enjoying the bullying. When people do try to stand up, there’s social pressure that comes from that anonymous majority of bystanders; it puts the bystander into the position of being a target not only for the bully but for all the other bystanders to … hate on the bystander.”

As for the kind of bystander who helps, Will related his own experience: “It took me four years to get comfortable with what I was hearing people were saying about myself. I had to change how I acted in public. It was definitely for the better with me changing myself, but it definitely took me a long time to get to that point where I could just shrug it off and ‘ignore it and it’ll go away.’ There have definitely been times when I’ve wanted to react and I still react sometimes; I still freak out if I hear the occasional wrong thing. It’s not always that easy and, until a person gets to the point of not caring, they need those private listeners to support them, because I know it took me having good role models to look up to along with a great group of friends to really get me comfortable with who I was and help me be a better person.”

From the audience, Xitlali told of when she felt compelled to be an upstander: “About bystanders, I’ve been a bystander before and there was a story when I was on the bus trying to head to the train in Chicago and there was this women who couldn’t speak and this one man was bothering her, hitting her book bag, and he kept laughing at her, and nobody would do anything [or] say anything, and she was getting really mad … and I got up and I told him, “You need to stop. This woman cannot speak, she cannot defend herself. Can you stop already?” He felt kind of stupid and said [something about how] she started it and stood back. So I don’t really like that. In school I’ve always been kind of one of the tough girls at school. When I see bullying and I like the person I stop it, I’m, like, no, you’re not going to do that in my face because I don’t like it.”

William Bowens in the audience: “On Playstation this guy two cities away from me said he was being bullied at school. And I was helping him online, telling him the things he should do so he could prevent this. As time went on, it actually worked and the bullying stopped. I didn’t tell him to do anything bad. I gave him the right choices.”

About anonymity online – how do you deal with anonymous harassment?

The panelists referred to Ask.fm (details on that here), a social media service with an anonymous Q&A format….

Zoe: “With Ask.fm, I’ve seen some really nasty comments on there, and I feel like, hey, not only are you a bully but you’re an anonymous bully. So you’re not even owning up to what you said. That just doesn’t make any sense to me. The reason that you shouldn’t reply to comments like that is, the second you feel you have to defend yourself … you’re justifying their insult. You’re giving them … that power we talked about. If it’s anonymous, the first thing I would do is ignore it. You don’t know that person – which is good for you, actually, I feel – and they don’t matter because they’re not owning up to what they’re saying and it’s not nice. So why even bother, why would you even give that a second glance?… That probably has nothing to do with you and everything to do with the insecurities in that person. So I would just ignore it.”

Will: “There’s often a false sense of anonymity on the Internet,” he said referring to how people who think they’re posting anonymously can be identified. Another way this is the case is adults thinking young people are posting anonymously when they’re not anonymous to peers.

William (audience member) talks about anonymity on gaming networks such as Xbox Live or PlayStation Network, pointing out the impersonal nature of the harassment or trash talk. “You join random [groups of players] and sometimes people talk down on you. They hide behind the screen. They have PSN screen names and it’s like being anonymous. They feel like they have power because their face is hidden, so they can say anything they want. You’d never know who they are, so they take advantage of that.”

But there’s a flipside….

Will: “But also on Ask.fm, it’s unfortunately less common than the anonymous bullying, but there’s also anonymous complimenting going on to some extent. For every school confessions page I see on Facebook or Twitter, where people post bad things about schools or other people, I see one if not more … compliments pages pop up. So I think people are starting to move toward countering cyberbullying with cybercomplimenting and cyberpositivity.”

Hannah: “I feel like we’re focusing on all the negative parts of the Internet, when in reality there’s more positives than negatives to it. You can have compliments pages and connect with classmates and there are all these good ways to communicate and explore ideas, and it’s not all negative. That gets amplified a lot, that the Internet is all unsafe and bad, and in reality I think it is really helpful to a lot of people and you just have to work around all the negative parts to it.”

Will: “On the Net, when I’m anonymous, I’m willing to say more kind things than I probably would in person, because in person it’s almost like there’s this embarrassment that accompanies just walking up to somebody and complimenting them – it can be seen as creepy or weird or just strange. But when you do it anonymously on the Internet, that social pressure’s gone…. Not attaching a name to a compliment can also mean you’re not getting social credit for giving that compliment. It’s more likely to be a genuine compliment because the anonymity prevents the person giving the compliment from getting anything out of it.”

What do they think of school bullying prevention programs?

Arielle: “I feel like those programs would be better if there was a way to report random acts of kindness. I think that focusing on the negativity makes us feel very negative, and if we try to think more about what positive things people are doing and if we highlight the kindness that is going around, that would be a way to counteract some of it at least.”

Will: “I remember getting talked to about bullying, and it happened once a year and it was ‘that bullying day’ … and that didn’t do a lot. I mean, bullying has been happening for years…. It’s often done to look like they’re doing something proactive. The programs need to be redesigned because students aren’t going to bring it up to adults just naturally [as anti-bullying programs often urge students to do] for the reasons mentioned before. And it’s not just parents, it’s adults in general. Adults have to be actively reaching out on a personal level and students have to be reaching out to each other on a personal level.”

He gave an example from his own experience: “There was a guy my freshman year: we didn’t like each other. I thought he was generally a mean-spirited guy. He thought I was totally annoying. And to an extent we were both right. It wasn’t till we sat together with two other friends in physics class last year, and within two weeks we were really good friends, and now he’s one of my best friends. But we were set up to be mean to each other because we had zero personal connection. We just based it on what we heard about the other person, what we observed from a distance. [How might a bullying prevention program help with that?] There was little or no personal connection, so encouraging that among students and getting friends to encourage it – people who are friends of both parties, for instance…. [So he suggests] encouragement of a general atmosphere of positivity rather than specifically anti-negativity – more of a pro-positive approach.”

Two insightful thoughts to end on

From the audience, Aidan McDaniel, 17, from West Virginia (who moderated the social media industry panel) on the challenge of dealing with anonymity: “I want to share a quote I read on Tumblr that I’ll have to paraphrase. It said something like: ‘Anonymous hate is so detrimental because, instead of hearing it in another person’s voice, we hear it in our own.’ It’s impactful because true.” Aidan explained that it’s easier when you can say, “‘Oh, it’s just that person who we can see and identify, it’s their issue.’ It’s more difficult … when we don’t have a face or a personality to attach it to – we hear it in our own voice and we hear it in our own head. So I thought that was an interesting perspective.”

Also from the audience, Mike Hawkins of YouMedia in Chicago likened anonymous harassment to road rage – how hiding behind a computer screen is like hiding in a car in traffic: “People are tough in their car. Get out of your car, then. It’s the same thing online. You can be gangster behind these machines, but that’s not in essence who you are or who the other person is, and I think if we start to critically think as a society and not just react to these folks, then we can start to push the conversation a little bit forward.”

And with the help of these student leaders, we did push the conversation forward on Safer Internet Day 2014. Thank you, panelists and participants, for the insights.

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