Monday, February 9, 2015

Instagram, Hate pages, Teen Suicide and Lord of the Flies

The rate of teen suicide is on the increase.  And lately there have been some news articles that trace some of these more recent suicides back to "hate pages" that kids write (and which these other kids then read) using instagram and other media tools that harass, humiliate, belittle and in some cases actually tell the kids they should die, that they'd be better off dead, that others want them dead.  There is a level of anonymity, and a total lack of accountability in these that allows this to occur in such a way that it is reminiscent for me of "Lord of the Flies".  In that story, the fact that there would be no accountability for their actions led a group of normal kids, led by a bully, to almost kill another in a horrible, brutal way.  This feels similar to me.  Children are being destroyed emotionally and the anonymity of some areas of the internet is allowing this to occur in incredibly brutal, painful ways without there being any accountability or even recourse to address it.  The anonymity behind this new form of bullying has sometimes encouraged other kids to participate in this behavior too who, if it weren't for the seeming distance created by the anonymity of the internet, would not be bullies at all.

I received a note in my email today letting me know that my eldest daughter's school is now aware of several cases of these anonymous hate pages being written to, for, and about kids at her school.  My daughter is not all that interested in social media, something I am deeply grateful for at the moment. But I worry, because she is sensitive.  And I think she would be an easy target for this kind of thing. I worry for her, specifically, because if she does eventually develop an interest in this kind of social media, she could be deeply injured by it.  But it causes me to worry in general as well.  I worry for the kids who are plugged in in this way, those who have experienced this kind of bullying and those who haven't yet but will experience it.  I worry not only for the kids who are bullied by this, but frankly for the bullies themselves.  What will it do to a kid's psyche to realize that they contributed to the death of one of their peers?  Some may have to live the rest of their lives with a deep guilt and shame.  Others may feel a power to destroy that they then want to explore further.  I worry about how the illusion of anonymity (because in fact, if someone really wants to, that anonymity can be broken through, especially on the internet), is giving license to behaviors that we otherwise recognize as despicable.

Of course, the situations in which it is of most concern involve our young people.  But the truth is that this anonymity leads adults also to behave in despicable ways.  I read the comments left on articles published in on-line journals and papers.  The more anonymous the commenters are allowed to be, the worse and more personally attacking the comments become.  The couple of truly nasty comments I have received at church have come anonymously.  There is not one person in my church whom I think of as unkind.  But apparently, under the guise of anonymity, even the behaviors of the most loving of us can take a mean turn.  It is hard at times to not lose all faith in humanity when we witness and experience what people do when they are allowed to be anonymous.  And I can't help but think that kids don't learn to act like this in a vacuum. We learn to be nasty by experiencing or witnessing others' nastiness.  We learn despicable behavior by experiencing and witnessing despicable behavior.

My challenge then for all of us is to strive to live as if all that we do were seen, because in fact, it all is.  If not by other people, then by God, or the Universe, or whatever you recognize as bigger than ourselves.  We don't go through life anonymously.  But even if we did, it would behoove us to strive, for the sake of those who watch and those who learn from that watching and those who experience our actions, to live life with integrity, compassion, love and a genuine effort to be the best we can be.  It is also something we need to discuss with our kids.  No matter how "safe" they may feel in these seemingly anonymous sites, they should never act with meanness towards others.  Those conversations need to be had.  It is not just the bullied who are being destroyed.  The bullies themselves are being injured too by being allowed to do this kind of damage to others.   It changes you to hurt someone else.  And my prayer is that the hurt we do to others is minimal, for the others' sakes, and for our own.