"There's a bit of magic in everything, and some loss to even things out." -Lou Reed

Monday, March 5, 2012

Twitter: Where the Bullies Are

A few weeks ago, a friend of a friend contacted me through my twitter account. Could I help her monitor some activity on twitter?—a friend’s child was being bullied. Absolutely, I replied. Basically, neither of these mothers had any experience on twitter and didn’t have the first clue as to how to set up an account or to monitor others accounts and what the owners of those accounts were saying, or tweeting.

What I didn’t know is that even given my computer savvy, my five years of blogging, my knowledge of all social media platforms, I had no idea what twitter has turned into for the junior high and high school set. Sure, twitter is all about sharing the minutia of a teenager’s life with some acerbic spin, all in 140 characters or less. It’s about being quick witted and cool, and complaining about the same things we all did at that age—homework, dating, parents, teachers. But more than anything, and with an overwhelming majority, twitter is where bullying is rampant, and for the most part, these student’s twitter feeds are not monitored or policed by parents. At all.

And your kids are banking on that. 

All of these kids have slowly migrated over to twitter from Facebook. Many people don’t realize that Facebook began as a platform that only college students could join. Later it opened up to high school students, and then the flood gates opened when anyone, age 13 or above, was allowed to sign up. What happened then, with this open access, is that your mother and your aunt, and even your grandmother were on Facebook, killing the “cool” factor for most kids- especially the high school demographic. While this age group (high schoolers) still has Facebook accounts, and the ability to monitor who sees what, parents are much more savvy with Facebook, and are at least a little more aware of what’s being posted within their child’s inner circle.

Twitter, however, is a whole different animal. Most adults I know have a hard time understanding twitter, and I admittedly didn’t understand the fascination at first. For me, it is a chance to follow several of my favorite authors and editors, and is full of links to articles for advice on writing, getting published, and other things that help keep me on top of my burgeoning writing career. Twitter is also a great source for breaking news and keeping up with headlines. It is fast-paced, and it is easy to understand why it doesn’t appeal to everyone.

But, believe me, the high school crowd knows that most of their parents aren’t paying attention. There is a freedom in posting on twitter, and an unrealistic view that no one is seeing their twitter updates except their small group of friends, and any other followers. The truth is, unless your twitter account is locked—or set to private—anyone can see your messages. Anyone.

What I discovered is that it seems all too easy and harmless for these kids to, say, set up a twitter account in someone’s name. Let’s say that a certain group of kids all dislikes someone named Sally Smith. So, they create an account: @sallysmith or @sally_smith. Done. Then, the tweeting begins. They can tweet messages about how many people she supposedly slept with at a party the night before, or other negative activity. It appears to be coming from her own account. Can you imagine at that age how humiliating this would be? Plus, people can re-tweet these updates, so this one account starts getting quoted by dozens of students all within the same school—and then maybe it keeps growing—and reaches students outside the walls of just the one high school. In a flash of a few keystrokes, rumors become fact, a reputation changes, a person’s life can be changed.

The sad fact is, as I began monitoring the students I was asked to, I found myself in a web of students and bullying that I wish I didn’t know existed. And I will say here that the kids that are doing this –at least the ones I know about—are honors kids, the top of their class—with middle class to wealthy families. I am sure there are other kids doing it---I just don’t think you can label a group or distinguish. It is rampant. It might not be the students you “expect”—the troublemakers or whatever group we somehow think of as bullies. You can’t say “not my child” until you know. Until you check. Until you read what they are writing, and who they are following.

What scares me is that the words they are typing, the messages they are sending, are more vile and hateful than I want to imagine anyone from that age group being capable of. The words I read stopped me in my tracks. I couldn’t imagine what would prompt these kids to spread and encourage so much hate. I have seen a lot of things over the years, but the viciousness of these attacks has haunted me.

In the process of trying to help this one kid, I have discovered other accounts where it is obvious that the owner has set up a fake account in someone’s name. It is pretty apparent once you are accustomed to viewing it. What is sad is that the victim of the bullying often knows about the account(s), but feels helpless. Some of the language and material are so vile, that I am sure they are ashamed or afraid to show their parents. So, in a sense, they remain helpless and bullied, and watch as these rumors spread and others cheer on the attacks.

I was in the middle of all of this when the latest high school shooting occurred in Ohio. I don’t know the circumstances around that incident, but it made me think of one young man in particular that I knew was being bullied. I could see and understand how young people get pushed and hurt so much that the pain overwhelms any other sense or reason.

I don’t have children, but since I have learned about all of this bullying on twitter, I have been unable to wrestle myself away from it. I have reported accounts to the security team at Twitter, and action is being taken. In appropriate cases, I have had someone local contact the police departments in their areas on their behalf. One thing I know, Twitter and law enforcement take all of these issues VERY seriously.

I have to believe that these kids don’t realize the ramifications of what they are doing. They are young, foolish…like we all were. They think this is all a joke, and that a few of their friends find them terribly witty. They don’t realize the unbelievable wrath of pain they are unleashing. At least I hope they don’t.

I have put several messages on Facebook asking all of my friends to PLEASE check their kids’ twitter accounts, and if you are reading this, I am begging you to do the same. If you don’t know how, find someone who can. If I can help, I will.

A few tips:

  • First, ask your child if he/she has a twitter account. I believe in granting kids this age some freedom/privacy, but I encourage you to tell them you will be doing a routine check of their account here and there for their own safety. Also, please tell your child that if they are being bullied, no matter what people are saying about them, no matter how vile or explicit the words are, to come to you—to not be ashamed or afraid. Get that out in the open now.
  • Go to www.twitter.com and sign up for an account. It is super easy. You don’t have to use it for anything except to monitor or check in on your child/children’s feeds.
  • Once you have an account, do a broad search for your child’s name from time to time. You can often find out if they have an account, or if others are tweeting about them in this way. It is a good way to monitor activity.
  • The important thing is to watch what your child’s friends and followers are tweeting. Look at who your child is following. Check those feeds, too.
  • Report bullying. If you know the child’s parents, call them, report it to them, and sadly, if they don’t act, report it to the school. The schools are becoming much more savvy and much more vigilant. But, more reports and more awareness from the parents will only continue to aid in stopping this wave of cyberbullying. The school will usually involve law enforcement if direct or physical threats are being made against another student.

I believe strongly that it takes a village to raise a child. And right now, that village extends out into the Neverland that is the internet. There is such a mix and tradeoff of good and bad, beautiful and ugly, inspirational and frightening things that happen and are created because of the itnernet’s reach. It is overwhelming for a skilled adult, and I think can drown a child in all the opportunity and anonymousness. 

I know we can’t make it stop tomorrow, and I know I can’t catch every bully, but if I do my part and you do yours, in one small corner of the world, we can make things a little better, one child at a time.

Other Resources:

Stop Bullying Now: website -- twitter feed


Pat March 7, 2012 at 3:12 PM  

When will this all stop? This has come so far from when I went to school and someone called someone else a "slut". Thanks for the informative post. I will be sure to pass on the information.


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