Last week I watched the documentary “Bully.” It’s a devastating film about the impacts of bullying on children, several of whom commit suicide because of their experiences. I cried my way through it but emerged on the other side more committed than ever to do my best to protect my boys from bullying and to make sure they don’t end up bullying others. The film ends with a call to action to Stand Up for the Silent; there’s also a website, The Bully Project, where you can take an anti-bullying pledge and access tools and resources related to the film.
The “Bully” film came out in 2011 but you might not have seen it. There was a big fight between the MPAA (the group that assigns ratings to movies) and Harvey Weinstein (head of the distribution company) over the rating. The MPAA assigned it an “R” rating based on language; Weinstein strenuously objected to that rating because it would prevent children, the very people who most need to hear the movie’s message, from seeing it. Ironically enough, Weinstein was accused of bullying for the way he dealt with the controversy. It was a big enough deal that “South Park’s” Kyle indirectly confronted Weinstein by asking his amateur filmmaker friend Stan, “If this video needs to be seen by everyone, why don’t you put it on the Internet for free?”
Ah, the internet. Although the world wide web has been part of my life for only about 15 years now, I can’t imagine living without it. There is so much good that has come from connecting the whole world — regimes have been toppled with the help of Twitter; online petitions have changed policies; and small businesses, disease research, and whole villages have been supported by the kindness of online strangers. The internet has given a voice to persecuted minorities and, in many ways, has leveled the playing field; anyone with an internet connection can make themselves heard.
That whole “giving a voice to everyone” thing has some drawbacks, though. While I’m a card-carrying ACLU member and will fight for our right to free speech, even if that speech is hateful, it’s disheartening to see what I believe is an exponential increase in hate speech and bullying online.
Back in the old days (uh, like 1990), if you were bullied at school, you just had to come home. Once you were out of the classroom or the school yard or off the bus, you were safe. Now there’s no escaping it. The bullies at your school follow you online — they continue to berate and threaten you via Facebook, Twitter, MySpace, Instagram, or whatever the platform-du-jour happens to be. Even worse, the bullying is faceless, nameless, at least for the perpetrators. As the victim, your name and likeness is spread far and wide, along with the lies and the stories that are made up about you. The bully gets to hide behind the anonymity of the internet. Anyone can set up a site or a page with the express purpose of hurting someone else. This summer, a group of middle-school girls here in my town set up a horrible, hateful Instagram page which mocked and ridiculed some of their classmates. Parents were up in arms, contacting the school, the police, and even Instagram itself to try to deal with the page.
As a parent, what can we do about bullying? I don’t have all the answers because I’m just starting to explore this issue myself. For small kids, I think we can begin by framing the message that it’s wrong to hurt other people and right to stick up for themselves and for others. We can read them books like “One” by Kathryn Otoshi. We can use tools such as Awesome Upstander! We can scrap that old saying, “Sticks and stones may break my bones but names will never hurt me.” Until our kids are strong enough to not care what others think of them (and really, how many of us adults would say that we are?), that saying is wrong; names DO hurt.
Perhaps most importantly, we need to lead by example. We all know that little pitchers have big ears. What do our kids hear us saying? Do they hear us refer to others as stupid? Do they see us treating others unkindly? What would they think if they read our tweets or reviewed our Facebook activity log?
Last week, I was the victim of online bullying. I’m a grownup and I normally wear my big-girl panties when I go online, especially since I am fully aware that you need to watch out for trolls. This incident, though, affected me in a way that I haven’t felt in a very long time, perhaps never. Sure, I was pushed around and slammed into lockers in high school, but somehow it didn’t shake me. This was different.
I don’t want to give the details because I don’t want to feed the trolls, but I can tell you generally what happened. A man gave a television interview during which he made a comment that I perceived as insensitive and derogatory to people with life-threatening food allergies. I went to his Facebook page and made a comment, knowing full well that my name and profile picture would be attached to my comment. In my opinion, my comment was not particularly inflammatory; I called him no names, I did not personally attack him and I used his own words in my rebuttal. There were other comments about his insensitivity to food allergies and to some of those people, while not apologizing, he tried to explain what he’d really meant and indicated that he wasn’t so different from us. That was how he responded to others, not to me.
To me, he made a hateful comment about my child dying. He then took a screen shot of my comment and his obnoxious retort, blacked out my name, put a frowny face over my picture, and posted it to his own 40K+ followers, inviting them to mock me. Granted, no one would expect his particular audience to be sympathetic to food allergies, but still, I was shocked and devastated by the response. I had to stop reading after the first page of comments because in just that handful, I read things about me being a lazy, terrible mother and about food allergies being good because they “thin the herd.” I felt panicky and sick. I logged off and crawled into bed with my food-allergic son, holding him tightly and crying over the fact that anyone could say that the world would be better off without him in it. I had been bullied.
After a self-imposed Facebook exile of about 36 hours, I dared to log back in, fearing that the trolls would come after me specifically and brutally. I considered deleting my initial comment altogether but then reconsidered; despite the fallout, I did not regret what I’d written nor the way I’d written it and I would not retreat from my statements. I came back to Facebook civilization with the following status update: “The-one-who-will-henceforth-remain-nameless and his kid-hating minions don’t deserve one more second of my precious time. It just further reinforces my promise to never make hateful comments on the internet, especially cowardly, anonymous ones.” I didn’t read the rest of the comments as I was still feeling rather fragile, but I did take note of his further actions and the number of responses.
In the week since the incident, that hateful post has garnered nearly 500 comments, the overwhelming majority of them negative toward me and toward food allergies in general. (Thanks to my friends, the food allergy community, and rational people everywhere, there were some supportive comments.) He’s now expanded the issue into a full-blown blog post where he addresses me and two other commenters by name, mocks us specifically and invites more ridicule. His link to that post from his FB page garnered another several hundred comments.
Though I promised that I would not give this man any more of my time, I do feel that the subject of bullying deserves much more time, my time and yours. Bullying is a real problem; that’s no surprise to anyone. But it’s not the kids that are the problem, it’s us. It is our responsibility to teach and more importantly, to model. Whether it’s Bill O’Reilly and other shock-jocks and talking heads shouting down their guests . . . or it’s Alec Baldwin sending homophobic, threatening tweets about a reporter (article here). . . or it’s Harvey Weinstein grandstanding to get what he wants for his movie . . . or it’s Twitter trolls threatening to rape the woman who successfully lobbied to get Jane Austen on British money (article here). . . or anonymous posters using the internet to extend their already dubious fifteen minutes of fame at the expense of those of us who are committed to open, productive conversation and (gasp!) disagreement . . or a million other examples . . . we are the problem. How can we expect our kids to get this right when we clearly haven’t?