Tuesday 21 October 2014

Aisling O’Connor: How adults are giving children a master class in cyber-bullying

Published 18/03/2013 | 17:00

Taylor Swift
Taylor Swift

'HOW can we ask for our young stars to have a high level of responsibility if we are not demonstrating that same level of responsibility towards them?" asked Jada Pinkett Smith in an open letter on her Facebook page last Sunday, addressing the recent aimless criticism of Justin Bieber and Taylor Swift.

The actress-singer ponders if there is any difference between cyber-bullying and how adults conduct themselves online. She might be on to something. As a society, are we advocates of cyber-bullying in leading by example?

Jada and her husband, Will Smith, are parents to the latest kids on the celebrity chopping block: Jaden (14) and Willow (12). The celebu-mom airs her disgust at social media, blogging and online articles that call out the behaviour of Bieber, Swift, Rihanna and Oscar nominee Quvenzhane Wallis which, beyond the realm of Hollywood, would be put down to growing pains.

Teens and pre-teens are, of course, heavily influenced by their peers and their idols, but the mainstream media has become a major player in their formative years. Though parents will be forever uncool, vulnerable kids view faceless, online adults – who slap each other on the back for yet another great Anne Hathaway desperado gag – as the 'in crowd'.

Young people are given to acting out and risk-taking in what they think is being 'grown up'. According to Bodywhys, The Eating Disorder Association of Ireland, a 2009 research of Irish adolescents revealed that 71pc felt adversely affected by media portrayal of body weight and shape. If kids are looking at the media like a mirror, is the 'monkey see, monkey do' factor causing them to openly and hurtfully criticise each other on the internet?

Also, when we take to message boards, comment sections and social media profiles to engage in piss-pulling, heated arguments and media-fuelled celebrity hate campaigns, it is likely that we are giving youngsters a master class in bullying.

The freedom of the internet, and the anonymity it provides, comes with great responsibility. As a society, is it time to start self-governing our online activity and calling out subversive harassment by other adults on the web?

Teenhelp, a Barnardos initiative, defines areas of cyber-bullying so young people can identify if they are a victim or a perpetrator of this phenomenon associated with depression and suicide.

"A light-hearted joke or post online could develop into a bullying situation if others add cruel remarks or comments.

"People who use technology to bully may say things online or by text that they would never say face-to-face."

These recommendations bear a striking resemblance to common adult social media conduct. Web-surfing teens aren't aware that the person deriding Taylor Swift for her relationship choices in a sexist manner is, in fact, a bored office worker, watching the clock for home time, who would probably never voice this perspective to colleagues.

Of course it is not advisable for Rihanna to have reacquainted herself with her former abuser, and Justin Bieber should probably have toned down the birthday partying in London. Jada Pinkett Smith proffers that these are mistakes every young adult makes, and by publicly ripping apart high achievers for their shortcomings, society is undermining its youth – and teaching them to do the same to each other.

There is much to be learned from the association between teen cyber-bullying and 'the online conversation'. Anonymously and publicly shaming others as a modus operandi or stress release seems to be trickling down from the top, and the rot is setting in. The emerging link between unchecked online victimisation and teen suicide is staggering, to say the least.

THERE is no quick fix to the fracture cyber-bullying has created in contemporary society and the long-term effect on 'Generation-I'. That which is cultured in formative years becomes the culture of the future.

In battling cyber-bullying, parents are advised to empower children to voice any online ill-communication concerns and devise a family media-usage policy. However, it is vital that we begin to engage in monitoring our own behaviour and flagging that of others.

The current stakeholders of society must lead by a new example. As guided by Barnardos: "Be careful online, and remember that words have power."

Irish Independent

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