The above title is misleading. In fact it is as misleading as the term cyberbullying, which is an umbrella term used from experiences which range drastically. ”Cyberbullying” has been used to describe the humiliation of LGBT youth via video; the racial hatred of Sikhs on Reddit, the systematic harassment and suicide of a teenage girl by a neighboring peer’s mother; a hoax wherein a Facebooker pretended to be a woman’s missing (for 31 years); and the bad Yelp reviews of a restauranteur in AZ.
My point, exactly: All of the things described above are different in scope, intentionality, form of media used, duration, and impact. We need to keep this complicated. This is not to take away from the horrific acts that people have perpetuated with social media, or excuse them. Rather I think we need to help kids and their parents find more nuanced ways to make sense of the way newer technologies are impacting us.
Social media amplifies ideas, feelings, and conflicts. It often dysregulates family systems. Growing up, many family members didn’t need to learn the level of digital literacy that today’s world requires. Parents may be tempted to put their children in a lengthy or permanent internet lockdown. I hear the threats, or read them, all the time: No screens. You’re unplugged. She’s grounded from Facebook.
Please don’t do that.
I’ve worked with a number of young adults who have had the experiences of being on the receiving end of hatred, stalking, harassment and intrusion delivered via the internet. And thank goodness that their parents didn’t unplug them as kids. Because they stayed online they got to:
- learn how to ignore haters
- see/hear others stand up for them in a social media setting
- come to the defense of a peer themselves
- increase their ability to meet verbal aggression with cognition
- make the hundreds of microdecisions about whether to “fight this battle”
- seek out support from other peers
- form strong online communities and followings that helped them cope with and marginalize the aggressors
More and more, online technologies are becoming a prevalent form of communication, and to take away access is to remove the hearing and voice of youth. To do this is disempowerment, not protection.
I’ve said before that parents need to take an engaged approach with kids in order to be there to help kids understand and process the conflicts that are communicated through and amplified by social media. But this time I want to go further, and suggest that one way to help kids achieve digital literacy in terms of social skills is to let them play more multiplayer video games.
Many of you probably saw that coming, but for those of you who didn’t, let me explain. 21st century video games are themselves a powerful form of social media. Multiplayer games allow individuals to band together as guilds, raids, platoons and other groups to achieve higher endgame goals. Collaboration is built into them as part of the fun and as necessary to meet the challenges.
There are exceptions to this, but it has been my experience that people don’t begin systematic personal attacks on each other when they are in the middle of downing Onyxia. They are too busy joining forces to win. I am convinced that much hatred we see in the developed world is there in large part because of boredom and apathy. Games provide an alternative form of engagement to hatin’
Look, I’m not saying that people playing games never say sexist things, swear, or utter homophobic comments. But I can say that I have heard more people, adults and children, stand up to hatred in World of Warcraft than I ever have in the 2 decades I worked in public school settings. I’ve seen racism confronted numerous times in guild chat, seen rules for civility created and enforced over and over, always citing a variation of the same reason: ”We’re all here to have fun, so please keep the climate conducive to that.”
Video games provide powerful interactive arenas for diverse groups of people to collaborate or compete strategically. They capture our interest with a different sort of drama than the sort that we see our youth struggle with in other settings. In fact, for many individuals video games provide a welcome respite from the drama that occurs in those other settings.
Social media does indeed amplify nastiness, harassment and hatred. It also amplifies kindness, hope, generosity and cooperation. If we don’t lean into social media with our kids, they’ll never know how to use it to amplify goodness in the world. Worse yet, if we cut them off from connecting with the world online we’ll deprive them of the necessary opportunities to recognize and choose between good and evil.