When Social Media Becomes Internet Bullying

Maybe you’ve noticed a lot of your Facebook friends advertising their Formspring accounts lately, especially if you’re friends with high school or college students. By my [completely unresearched] estimation, they seem to be the largest demographic. If you haven’t heard of Formspring and don’t know what it’s all about, suffice it to say that it’s a social media forum through which people ask each other questions. If you’d like a more thorough description of its services, feel free to check it out.

In an age where we have so many different resources available to ask people questions, I’m not totally sure why a service like this is even necessary. If you want to know what your friend’s favorite movie is, why not just ask in person? Ask on Facebook. Ask on Twitter. Ask on AIM. Pick up the phone and call or text. This seems to be billed as a “getting-to-know-you” kind of service, allowing people to ask questions in order to, well, get to know someone better. In that respect, it seems like Internet speed-dating. Remember back in the ’90s when everyone warned us not to meet up in “real life” with anyone we met in AOL chat rooms? Then all of a sudden online dating services started encouraging us to do just that. Did people suddenly become much more honest and trustworthy? Doubtful. But I digress. Formspring also advertises this site as a way for people to ask questions of their favorite authors and celebrities (something that many of them already do on Twitter. I see public figures advertising their Twitter accounts all the time. I’ve yet to see one advertise a Formspring).

In fact, in many respects, it’s just like Twitter, sans the 140 character limit. The only thing that seems to separate it from its competition is the fact that it permits anonymity.

Aye, there’s the rub.

This very anonymity (which, according to Formspring’s “About” page, can be disabled so that only users willing to give their identities are permitted to ask you questions) is the reason why teenagers and young adults seem to be flocking to it. When they’re permitted to hide behind anonymity, they’re given a safety net. You might be thinking that they’re asking each other questions like “I heard from a reliable source that you have a crush on Chester. Can you confirm this?” (by the way, who even assumes that these questions will be answered honestly just because the website says “you must”? If someone asked me something personal that I didn’t want to reveal, I would either not answer or tell a white lie, too. It’s none of their business, but I make it their business by encouraging them to pry into my life).

That’s not what these kids are asking, though. I’ve lurked on a few Formspring accounts, some belonging to young adults that I know, and others belonging to people I don’t know. The common thread here seems to be bullying. Sure, some people ask honest (albeit pointless) questions, such as “Why is your hair so pretty?” But there’s a lot of nastiness going on. I’ve yet to visit a Formspring account where I haven’t seen bullying taking place. I’ve seen fights (very public fights, mind you, since I had no trouble accessing these accounts) where anonymous users who obviously knew the account owner took advantage of their anonymity to make fun of the owner’s clothes, hair, boyfriends, yearbook pictures, personality, and other absolutely stupid things. Instead of preventing anonymous users from accessing their accounts, the owners just fight back. They call each other whores and sluts (girls are the worst). It gets downright evil.

It used to be that teachers had to keep an eye on kids to make sure they weren’t harassing each other at school and on the playground. Then Internet bullying became a reality, and I’m not convinced that many educators (or school districts) are prepared to deal with that. I’m not even totally certain of where I stand on what an educator’s role should be in “patrolling” online bullying. Obviously, we can’t see everything the kids are doing. Parents really need to be monitoring their children’s web usage, but many of them don’t. “Here Johnny. I know you’re only 13, but have your own computer to keep in your room.” Subtext: “Leave me alone, Johnny.” A lot of parents trust their kids way more than they should, and the kids know this. They take advantage of it. And it’s sad to say, but there are too many cases in which parents are part of the problem. Remember the teenage girl who committed suicide after being harassed by someone’s mom on MySpace? These are real problems and they’re not going away, especially not if the people who need to be helping the kids are turning a blind eye and shrugging their shoulders. We don’t want to spend our time invading the kids’ personal lives and micromanaging them anymore than they want us to (and let’s be honest, we have to let them figure some things out for themselves). They’re entitled to privacy. This is what makes it so difficult to figure out how to best deal with this growing problem.

For all of the absolutely inane garbage on MTV these days, if you’ve managed to navigate your way around the shallow (and trashy) reality t.v. personalities, fist-pumping, and binge drinking, you may have noticed a show called If You Really Knew Me. I’m actually really intrigued by this show because I think it’s the best thing MTV’s done in a while. The premise is that it breaks down barriers in high schools across the country through “Challenge Days” and forces the students to realize that just because they hang out with different groups doesn’t make them different, that everyone is vulnerable in some way, and that two seemingly total opposites could have a great deal in common. By the end of the day, everyone is basically crying. Turns out the girl who seems to have it all gets beat up when she goes home. You know who 100% identifies with that? The kid that everyone thinks is a total freak. Forced to spend the whole day in a group together, it turns out that they all get along, despite their outward appearance.

This seems like common sense. And yet.

I think that the idea here is good. I’d like to see them take it a little further. Sure, they may have claimed to have defeated racism on the football team for the cameras, but did they really? I’d like MTV to follow up with these schools and find out who really changed. Did Challenge Day make a lasting difference, or did kids fall back into their old routines? Furthermore, it would seem that if something like this – some kind of school-bonding exercise – were to work and have lasting effects, it would need to be conducted every year, not only to give the incoming classes that experience, but to continue to remind the upperclassmen of lessons learned in basic human decency. Maybe if kids understood that fundamentally we are all the same, and they really absorbed that lesson, bullying of any kind wouldn’t be nearly the problem that it is.

As all of our real lives begin to enmesh with our Internet lives, it’s happening even faster for kids. For a lot of them, they’ve never even known the difference. Online life has always been real life. They’re perhaps too willing to share information with anyone and everyone, and they’re even less willing to log off. If they say it doesn’t bother them, they’re lying. I think it’s important that parents, educators, and other trusted adults at least be aware of the lengths to which these kids are going just to make someone else feel bad. Anything that’s main selling point is anonymity ought to be an enormous red flag.

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