The desire to be desired

So much going on in the news these days about young women facing dire consequences for their online presence. First, there has been a bit of media coverage of this research on pictures of teens being re-posted on websites without their permission. According to the article “The Internet Watch Foundation found that 88% of teens’ videos and photos are stolen, sometimes by a cottage industry of ‘parasite websites’ that exist for the sole purpose of harvesting candid teenage photos.”

While the startling percentage should be worth noting, it’s also important to note that only those photos that somehow were available to the public (either through low privacy settings on social networking sites, or through unfortunate theft/forwarding) were counted in this research. Also, the sample seems to be all pictures of teens, not just sexually explicit ones. No information as to whether sexually explicit pictures comprised a sizable percentage of the pictures analyzed, nor whether they were more or less likely to be found on those third-party sites.

And that statement about sexting “becoming the norm?” Well, the actual study states that 1/4 of teens have reported doing it. Which, if math serves me correctly, is not “norm.” And although over half did say that they have been asked to sext, that doesn’t seem surprising to me. Asking someone to “show me yours” has been tried since we all knew there was something “down there” we wanted to see.

Yet, there are consequences to having one’s picture posted on a random site — especially for girls, it seems. This article by Emily Heist Moss in Jezebel does a brilliant job of capturing that horrible tension between wanted and unwanted attention based on one’s looks. And sites like “12 Year Old Sluts” on Facebook, YouTube videos that ask “Am I Pretty?” as well as Amanda Todd’s story remind us that we still live in times where girls are told pretty early and consistently that they are to be beautiful and sexy so that others will admire them. But not too sexy (or beautiful) mind you, because then you are a slut, bitch, and will be told as much. Moss states that “shooting for appreciation without denigration” is the ultimate goal for many (young) women, a goal that requires careful negotiation while essentially balancing on a tightrope coated in Vaseline while everyone watches. Stay up there and you will earn the respect and awe of many. Slip and your fall will be recorded, posted, and ridiculed.

The story behind the story

By now, many of you have heard about the tragedy regarding Amanda Todd, the teen who took her life after severe cyberbulling. Her video, posted on this article about her, gives her own account of what happened, just days before she took her own life. I encourage you to watch it and “listen” to her story unfold.

What I believe may happen is a flurry of stories much like the one I posted above: the stories that talk about all the evils of the internet and how it is a dangerous place. What happened to Todd is horrible, but I want to highlight the two things that I hope are stressed and the ones I hope that are NOT brought to the front:

1. Media people — please see that this young woman was groomed by online chatters. It took her a year before she took off her top. What was shaping her life during that time? Who was (and wasn’t) in her life? Don’t just focus on the fact that she fell prey to an online stranger. Take a deeper look into how her situation was the result of a slow progression.

2. All of us — especially youth — why did you follow her from place to place? It was bad enough to bully her, but she moved several times to get away from it all. What, inside of you, possessed you to keep harassing and stalking her after she had left? This lack of humanity frightens me.

Things I don’t want focused on:

a. People figured out who she was. Yes, somehow, she was identified. But please don’t make this a scare-tactic story about stranger danger.

b. What she did was illegal. While it’s true that she could have been guilty of creating child pornography, I hope that the focus is on all the harm the other people did.

What’s going to happen now? Unclear. But I hope her story can be used to create dialogue about what can happen when harassment goes too far. There needs to be more forgiveness and understanding taught here. The basic lessons of being a good person.

A New Twist on Fighting Bullying

My friend Lauren sent me this link from HuffPo, about a high school student who is taking a rather extreme stance on bullying. Frustrated by the lack of administration response to what she sees as a failure to act in response to complaints about a particular bully in her school, she posted a note to Reddit stating that she would end her life.

This extreme measure seemed to have worked. The publicity from the general media, as well as individuals taking the time to respond to her and the school have apparently caused action. In an addendum to her original post, she writes:

 I feel amazing knowing that even if people dislike me for it, I stood up for my own safety. I have a ton of support- both from you guys and my friends. Thank you everyone who sent an email (they kept mentioning some guy from Montana). There is no need anymore to contact the school or the county about this issue. I will be checking in every morning with the counselor, and she will give me a pass to see her if I ever feel like I’m being harassed over the next few days. You guys made this all happen overnight and sped up the process ten-fold! I don’t think I can say thank you enough for helping me, and everyone else, finally deal with the school cyber bully. I love you, Reddit!!!”

Although this outcome pleases me — follow up to a well-documented bullying complaint, the Reddit poster seemingly no longer suicidal, this scenario leaves me feeling uneasy. Are we to find her actions/statement parallel to a hunger strike? As an attention seeker? Would she really have killed herself to stand up against bullying? Thankfully, we will not know the answer. This time.

What are your thoughts on taking such extreme action?

The desexualization of bullying

I was going to try to come up with a fancier more accessible title, but I can’t right now. But I sure better by May! I’ve been invited to speak at an bullying awareness event in Austin Texas this May. While I jumped at this opportunity to share my work (and support my friend who is organizing the event), I quickly realized that I am no bullying expert. But, for better or for worse, not being a total expert on a topic as not stopped me before…

I am an expert on adolescent sexuality and sexual development. I also have a pretty good handle on youth and technology and how that impacts their development (hence, this blog). So, how to use my strengths in the context of this upcoming event? Tie all of these issues together — sexuality, technology, and bullying. I have found my comfort zone!

What’s odd is that while so much of bullying has a sexual undertone or is blatantly about sex or sexuality or at least gender, most bullying curricula, anti-bullying campaigns, etc., do not acknowledge this important association. Bullying is seen as harassment, teasing, isolation, and assault. But under no circumstances should one put the word “sexual” in front of any of those terms and call it bullying.

Why this separation? Why not discuss sexual harassment while discussing bullying? Where is the conversation about sexual respect and self-worth in curricula that addresses the need to be nice to others? Are (anti) bullying experts afraid to talk about sex? Does it complicate things too much? Does it narrow their message?

Whatever the reason, I think it’s important to accept the fact that a lot of bullying has to do with sexuality. An obvious example is about name-calling due to sexual orientation and/or gender expression (and the “Think Before You Speak” campaign does a good job of calling this out). But what about sexting under pressure? Spreading rumors? Calling someone a ho or slut? These are unfortunately very common ways to bullying another, but where’s the conversation about the sexual components?

I hope to be able to speak more eloquently about this topic in the future. For now, I will continue to explore this rift and see if I can’t begin to bridge the gap between my interests and the important work done to decrease bullying among youth.

Why is it so easy to hurt someone?

A recent poll co-sponsored by the AP and MTV reveals some disturbing, though perhaps not surprising figures. Over half (55%) of the teens and 20-somethings surveyed say they have seen people being mean to each other on social networking sites, and half see discriminatory words (e.g. “slut” or a racial slur) or images on those sites.

Yet 41% of these young women are offended by the word “slut” — 65% are offended if the word is used to describe themselves — 60% of African American youth would be offended if they saw the N-word being used against other people. Put another way, young people commonly engage in, and witness, behavior that hurts and offends their peers.

So what gives? Good old basic psychological theory which includes the disinhibition effect and dissociative anonymity, both described extremely well here by researcher John Suler, explains a lot of this phenomenon. In a nutshell, these theories explain the ease of name-calling online this way: it’s easier to type words than say them out loud because writing is a more indirect form of communication than speaking. It’s especially easier to write words on a computer screen than to say them out loud right in front of another human being. This is because I don’t see the emotional response to the person. I don’t have to defend myself in a physical environment if people disapprove of my actions. In short, I am shielded from the immediate effects of my actions, so it’s easier to perform them.

And then enter the bystander effect.  This is when a bunch of people witness something horrible and/or dangerous (an assault, a burning building, a car accident), yet no one does anything to intervene, figuring that others will do it instead — this is diffusion of responsibility. In short, the larger the audience, the less likely intervention will occur. Given the potentially hundreds, if not thousands of witnesses to name calling on a social networking site, who are also influenced by the disinhibition effect, it’s no wonder cyberbullying runs rampant and no one does anything to stop it!

Cyberbullying is so toxic because it feeds off of human nature, so in order to stop it we have to be more deliberate in our approach and address it head-on. We have to teach people about our inclinations and how to fight them. We need to focus on empathy, understanding, and our circles of influence — we need to think outside of ourselves. Because our instincts are going to lead us to be just another bystander in cyberspace.

"The Right to be Forgotten"

This Forbes article is a great premise for some sort of psychological thriller movie or Grisham novel — but it’s grounded in some semblance of reality. It highlights the idea — bandied about by policymakers and advocacy groups such as Common Sense Media — of allowing us to “erase” our internet histories. Wish you hadn’t posted that unflattering 3rd grade school picture? Poof — take it down. What were you thinking when you wrote all about your ex in that blog? No worries — just erase the whole thing. And that YouTube clip of you trying to re-enact the entire season finale of Lost after a few too many? Fear no longer….

Sure we can already take down the stuff we posted on our own, without any laws or protections needed. But what if that blog post goes viral? What if your wild high school buddy lacks any filters when deciding to post those keg party moments? What if someone shares a video of you again, and again, and again? “Right to be Forgotten” laws would allow for the deletion of ALL references to material about you not needed for “legitimate purposes” (so forget about fantasizing about getting rid of your online billing or credit score..).

On some level, this makes sense. After all, if I don’t like something publicly available, and it’s about me, I should be able to get rid of it. Especially if I posted it in the first place. Don’t I have the right to retract? However, as writer Adam Thierer states, such actions would be a huge violation of freedom of speech. Not to mention technologically impossible (as of now).

But the law does have some appealing applications. All those posts written by cyberbullies could be gone just like that. And easily erased if re-posted, thus discouraging future attempts. If someone is trying to change after being afflicted by addiction, or involved in a gang, they can remove that social networking history to avoid stigmatization.

Bottom line is, though, that there is no such law and probably will never will be. And people DO have the right to express themselves (within certain limits) and we have the right to access information, no matter how unsavory. So, we should think about every post we make before putting them up there for everyone to see. And share. Because, once it’s up there, you lose control over its future, and to some extent, your past.

The internet just "is"

Nice summary of research by academics Patti M. Valkenburg and Jochen Pete, who have written numerous articles about youth online. In their current research, these two scholars conducted a review of all research done to date on teens online and concluded that the Internet isn’t necessarily a positive or negative influence. It is just a tool to use — for good or evil. They write “”Instant messaging can help them exchange intimate information with their close friends, thereby stimulating the quality of these friendships. However, it is also widely used for cyberbullying and online harassment. Likewise, online social support groups can help adolescents with social or health problems, but at the same time they can also result in dangerous interactions with strangers.”

“Nuff said. As I and many others have been positing for years, we cannot portray the internet as this scary world from which we need to protect our youth. Instead, we need to work with our youth to provide them with positive environments and good role models so that they are more prone to use technology (and their lives) to promote themselves and others, not bring each other down.