An impromptu post about bullying and Amanda Todd

Today one of my friends posted a status update on Facebook that I felt compelled to address. He’s probably sick of me at this point because pretty much every time he posts about issues surrounding education and/or the youth of today, I immediately jump into the fray and argue with him. He’s actually a really great guy, but I don’t think we see eye-to-eye on a lot of issues (especially the No Zero Policy.. that’s a post for another time, though). Anyway, he was sounding off because he feels that the children of today are overly-sheltered, babied, and subsequently, entitled. Part of what provoked my friend’s ire was that the topic of government-backed, anti-bullying initiatives has been flying around a lot lately following the suicide of Amanda Todd. He wondered why it is that the government didn’t bring this up before now. He wondered what was going on with Amanda Todd’s parents and why they didn’t step in. He pointed out that we’ve all been bullied before and that kids today are getting soft. I didn’t entirely disagree with his points, but I did feel that a few of the things he said required attention and consideration to the ubiquitous “other side.”

Before I go any further, I should say that I’m not sure, at this point, how widespread the story of Amanda Todd is now. In Canada, it is certainly a hot topic. I linked to everyone’s favourite nonauthoritative source above and I recommend that you read further about Amanda Todd’s story elsewhere too, but otherwise, I’ll try to keep this brief.

To catch you up, Amanda Todd was a fifteen-year-old girl living in B.C. What started as online chatting at the age of twelve or thirteen soon spiraled out of control when an adult, online predator got her to send him a photo of her bare breasts. He later used this photo to blackmail her. Eventually, after an unfortunate series of missteps that were fueled, no doubt, by shaky self-esteem, a desire to be loved and admired, and the foolhardy recklessness of youth, she found herself in a pretty sad situation. People harassed her in person and online (mostly the latter). People assaulted her. People used her. People tormented her. People tore her down until she felt compelled to take her own life not once, not twice, but three times until she was finally successful in her attempts. She made a YouTube video using flashcards to tell her heartwrenching story. The video went viral. Upon the discovery of her body this past weekend, the video has become one of the most talked-about things online.

Now, her story is all over the news. There is talk about introducing a motion in the Canadian House of Commons to address bullying, to provide more funding to anti-bullying organizations, and to start discussions about bullying prevention in our fair country. Personally, I think it’s about time. At my old school, I helped run an anti-bullying group that, deep down, was an unofficial Gay-Straight Alliance (We were underground for political reasons, not because we didn’t want to be “out”). We focused a lot of our time on anti-homophobia initiatives, but also addressed bullying in general. I think it’s a really worthy topic of discussion and I do think that people lack awareness about how our students/children treat each other in and now more prevalently, outside of school. I ended up writing quite a long response on my friend’s Facebook, and, as I reread it (I always reread my posts to check for grammar because I’m a nerd), I thought that I’d actually just like to share what I wrote. I’m editing some bits for clarity below, but more or less, this is what I said. Again, these are just my own personal thoughts and opinions.. you can take ’em or leave ’em.

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First of all, an important point to note: Kids are stupid crippled by their lack of experience. They get themselves into shitty scenarios not because they want to, but because a lot of them haven’t been taught how to behave online. They are born into an online world and don’t know how to interact properly, much like how when we are born, we don’t know how to speak.

Second, a lot of kids these days turn to social media as an outlet rather than discussing their issues with their parents. Kids are more secretive today than they once were because they have methods of communication that don’t require them to speak aloud. When I was younger, if I was on the phone with a friend, it was for a limited time and sometimes with my parents in the room; the contents of my conversation could easily be heard. Now, kids can text, email, Facebook, tweet, BBM, etc. all in silence without mom or dad knowing what they’re up to. They can do it in broad daylight, in public places, at home, on the toilet, and even while they’re laying in bed at all hours of the night. Kids have access to a whole world of information and attention that we didn’t have when we were growing up. I didn’t even have a computer with internet in my home until I was thirteen.

Compared to the world in which we grew up, this is a different world that our kids live in. Because it is a different world, policies, the way we approach child-rearing, and education practices are changing… and they need to continue to change. Bullying isn’t just schoolyard stuff anymore like it was when we were young. Now you can go home and be bullied online in your own bedroom whereas before, you could go home and feel safe. Now, nowhere is safe because of social media. And because social media is so open, it means that if you make one dumb mistake, it’s out there for thousands millions of people to see and hear about. So yeah, there have always been bullies. There always will be. But the type of bully we have today is very different, much more resourceful, and much more dangerous than the bullies we had when we were young.

So, why is Amanda Todd generating all this attention? Is it because of her YouTube video? Yes, absolutely! Social media is what made her story into a big deal. Social media is the reason why other girls/boys like her will hopefully start speaking out against their aggressors (which reminds me that the It Gets Better Project was a HUGE deal thanks to social media). Social media is the reason why the talk about anti-bullying legislation/policies is happening. If Amanda Todd hadn’t made that video in September, and more importantly, if it hadn’t been shared all over the internet since then, then important conversations about bullying might not happen today. And they are conversations that we DO need to have. She might have done some stupid things (Refer to point one: kids do stupid things), but she was a kid. She was unfortunate to have made a lot of mistakes online, where she has an audience of millions. She was unfortunate not to have had any substantial interventions when her parents realized that their child was in a dangerous position, though I acknowledge that they at least moved her once. But unlike so many teens who tragically end their lives in silence, she told her story. She used social media — the exact thing that was her undoing — as her tool for getting the word out. And now, here we are talking about it. Even if some people view her video as a cry for attention, even if people denounce her as an “emo teen,” even if people are busy mocking her because they are ignorant and insensitive, the fact is that she’s done something pretty amazing, The fact is that we’re talking about her, and that was the whole point.

Suicide, obviously, is never the answer, but I want to avoid passing judgment because I don’t know what it was like to be her. So many people are busy saying, “Oh, I was bullied, but I learned to be street smart. I learned to be tougher. I learned to walk away.” Okay, well, I was bullied as a pre-teen and well into my late teens, too, but there are degrees of bullying just like there are degrees of poverty. We all know what it’s like to just pay our bills, and maybe we know what it’s like to feel stressed out about not having enough money to live. But many of us can’t sit here and say that we know what it’s like to be homeless with absolutely nothing. Many of us have never experienced abject poverty. In the same way, yeah, I know how miserable it is to be bullied but I don’t know what it’s like to not want to live anymore.

I just want to say that again because it’s crazy to say. There are kids who are bullied to the point that they don’t want to LIVE. There are kids who hurt their physical bodies because they want to forget the emotional pain they have. There are kids who can hardly function because they are crippled with fear. There are kids who are so scared to socialize with their peers that they make themselves physically ill with anxiety.

We don’t know them. We don’t know what it’s like to be them. We don’t have the right to blame and scapegoat the parents, the education system, the society we live in for making our kids so prone to suffering. I think it’s reductive and insulting for us to click our tongues and say that Amanda Todd and other bullied, desperate children like her are this way because of X, Y, Z. Sure, maybe some of them are pampered/sheltered. Sure, maybe some of them need to grow a thicker skin. But I can tell you that I’m on the frontlines every day with teenagers and I see the pain bullying causes. I see it, and I feel it, and I thank the powers that be that I’m not a teenager today. Because bullies today are NOT the bullies of our youth.

As a last point, I’m not saying that the kids who are bullied are without a certain level of agency, or that they don’t have a duty to make responsible, reasonable decisions when they feel that they are in danger. I’m not saying that the kids who are bullied are always victims or that they are always innocent. I’m not saying that the kids who are bullied are angels who did nothing to attract the hatred of their peers, nor am I saying that anyone ever “deserves” to be bullied. I’m also not saying that we should actively shelter our kids or fight their battles for them or let them believe that they are unable to take measures to protect themselves. But I do believe in policies or legislations that address bullying, especially cyber bullying.. not because I think kids deserve to be pampered but because I don’t think that protecting kids from bullying is pampering them. We’re so quick to dismiss these issues because our kids are “entitled brats” with silver spoons in their mouths. And yet, if these same things were happening to our grandparents (people who, like kids, are potentially easy to take advantage of because they are not as savvy about the modern world we live in or because they are perhaps fragile), we’d immediately prosecute for elder abuse.

So instead of thinking that this is an issue about children, let’s treat it as an issue about human dignity. IT IS NOT OKAY TO TREAT OTHER PEOPLE LIKE SHIT. That’s it. End of story. I say, bring on that legislation.

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Thanks for stopping by. Special thanks to my thoughtful friends Steph and Shelby for helping nudge me into making some important post-publishing edits to this post.

What do you think about the difference betwen bullies then and bullies now? Does the story of Amanda Todd prompt more in your warm, teacher hearts than just issues of anti-bullying? What about digital citizenship and actively working to educate our babies about how vulnerable the internet (and they) can be? As users of social media, how can we best help our kids to understand the way it can be used for good and for evil?

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1 Comment

Filed under Policies, Reflection

One response to “An impromptu post about bullying and Amanda Todd

  1. Manda – so so so well written. We are living in a world that’s completely different from 5 years ago even (think about it.. twitter was juussssst coming out 5 years ago) and 10 years ago (face-what?).. I was a kid who went online to get away from the every day, but I’d like to think that I had some online “smarts”. Looking back, I’m not so sure. As a mom of 2 youngens, bullying is something that scares the living shit out of me on a daily basis.

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