I was an awkward teenager who did well in my classwork but had to work like crazy to accomplish it. Outside of classes, I was not an all-star at much of anything.
I was shy. I was clumsy at dance and sports. And I was a teenager, so I avoided the things I could not do well — and there were many things I could not do well.
I am glad I grew up when I did. People like me got teased, but bullying had not become a generational pastime.
Last week, I was driving a teenager to his house and he “entertained” me by reading some posts aimed at him on one of the social media sites that allow anonymous public posts that target individuals. It is not the only site that does this.
The questions centered around his relationship with a girl he considered his best friend in eighth grade. Nameless asked why he’s trying to take her away from her current boyfriend and speculated nastily about how physical the relationship is. The anonymous poster filled in details of a supposed “affair,” writing speculation and garbage as fact.
The teenager actually thought it was kind of funny, if pathetic.
The reality, he said, is that he and the girl are still friends and they have a class together, so they sometimes walk down the hall chatting. They don’t go out, although they are both old enough to date. She dates a friend of his.
There’s nothing to any of the speculation, he told me, but it circulates like a rampant case of flu, and accomplishes about as much good.
The boy has a great sense of humor and a highly refined sense of the ridiculous. He was bullied when he was younger, with devastating effect, and he’s not about to let that happen again. So he doesn’t put up with much, but he also doesn’t let the mean, stupid things that people say bother him like it used to, either. He shoots it down and moves on.
The pathetic soul, he told me sadly, must be someone he knows pretty well. Occasionally he is zinged with stuff that most people don’t know.
My daughters, too, have talked about the rumors and snide remarks and general ill-will that can be spread through apps like Yik Yak and Ask.fm. They have become excellent tools in the hands of bullies and it’s actually quite astonishing how vicious and remorseless some teenagers are — as long as they can hide behind that curtain of anonymity.
Yik Yak developers took some real heat over the issue and decided the problem was serious enough to start applying geography-based blocks so that it cannot be used at middle schools and high schools, which reportedly has helped. It can be used elsewhere, of course, but at least it prevents a crowd of teens from sitting around the cafeteria egging each other on.
It occurred to me, talking to the young man sitting beside me in the car, that we cannot protect teens from all of the ways that others can use technology to tear them down.
We have to find ways to build children stronger from the inside out, so that they are able to weather the random attacks that occur when teenager envy and insecurity find a target.
I haven’t figured out the formula yet, but I am pretty sure it starts with teaching kids that they are, first and foremost, too good to engage in destroying others. If we can show them that the arrows are made of envy and anger, they’ll realize they have no power to pierce. And they say more about the person shooting them than the intended target.
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