Network pressure and cyberbullying

Thursday, December 15th, 2011
 
 

Photo: JOID(Flickr)

Below is an excerpt from The Authority In Me, (a portion of Chapter 4, Network Pressure and Shaping Character), a book which explores the power of family life in a network culture that seeks to define and manipulate us. Based upon the voices of professionals, parents and youth, this book explores how the very same authority that inspired the founding of the Republic of the United States, enables us to promote peace at home, leverage the ‘Net’ for our own purposes, and empower our children to prosper in the face of adversity, anxiety and change.

Network Pressure 

The network pressure created by the Internet and mobile phones is like a fire hose aimed at our children. This is a conclusion I formed through a process of discovery in the early cyber days – before social media (like MySpace and Facebook). By today’s standards, the 1990s, the first decade of my youngest son’s life were prehistoric times.

The advent of the Internet as a household utility changed family dynamics by generating a premium on children’s attention, directing them away from the home and classroom for answers, and placed new leadership demands on parents.

Today each member of the family has a personal profile, and is managing networked contacts and relationships, transactions and information that impact the quality of life. Each family member in order to participate in the network has authority to publish and enter into agreements. It is a powerful role that comes with great responsibility. So therefore wisdom and self-discipline are exponentially important for our children to succeed, and be happy and secure.

As discussed earlier, roles no longer ascribe authority to the same degree as they once did prior to the advent of the Internet –rather authority quite simply “not surrendered”.

When children are not grounded first by connection to the family, someplace secure where they belong, make contributions and are valued, they are vulnerable to the whims of the network, sometimes playful and sometimes sinister energy promoting actions and beliefs that are not always in alignment with our values.

It is easy to feel safe on “the Net”. There is as sense of anonymity and seclusion that can cause loss of inhibitions. Hence stories about cyberbullying, sexting and victims of pedophiles make the headlines.

For this reason, children don’t always appreciate why it’s not a good idea to accept a “friend request” from someone they don’t know, even if the “requestor” references people they know and trust. The ‘Net’ does not discriminate, exploiting all personal elements offered up in profile entries, tagged photos and messages…

Social Media

I first learned about MySpace (www.myspace.com) seven years ago while performing “control H” on my 7th grader’s computer. Clicking upon the URL revealed a social network of some kind that captured tons of very personal information including, age, sex, sexual orientation, favorite colors and flavors, and “how you want to die”. It turned out that the URL I had accessed was a profile of someone attending a high school in another city. And it concerned me nevertheless that any minor child could engage in this type of networking. I began inquiring with other parents about “this MySpace” and learned that many parents knew nothing of it and some knew of significant dangers. One parent shared a story about his teenage daughter being pursued by someone who had come to the home to lay down flooring and later looked up her profile on MySpace and asked her for a date.

The parents of a 14-year-old Texas girl who was raped by someone who contacted her through her MySpace account attempted to sue MySpace and its parent company, News Corp. They claimed MySpace was fraudulent and negligent because their safety measures did not protect their daughter—who circumvented the website safety measure by declaring her age to be 18 years old. The lawsuit was originally dismissed in February 2007. In April 2008 the parents attempted to revive the $30 million lawsuit, which was denied.

The on-line discussions about this case declare this girl’s parents as “bad parents”, and MySpace and News Corp, have countered that the parents are at fault for not supervising their child.

There is no doubt that in order to keep children safe, parents must supervise their on-line activities. However, at the time the 14-year old created her “My Space” in February of 2005, most people were unaware of the potential danger of the Internet & profiling. And many parents are not “computer savvy”, and may be intimidated by the various on-line activities the kids enjoy today.

When our children lack the understanding of how their actions compromise their personal security, such as texting naked photos of themselves to please a boyfriend, or distributing naked photos to impress their friend communities, blasting across social networks mean and hateful messages about someone with whom they are in dispute, or sharing personal information in their social media profile and accepting strangers as “friends” because they were associated with someone they know, they put themselves and others at risk. They risk humiliation that seems relentless and endless (as what is published has the power of mass communication and lives on-line in perpetuity), potential criminal charges for felonies such as child pornography, suspension from school for bullying, and experiences with bad actors seeking to exploit them.

More importantly, these actions can leave a trail of broken relationships and despair.

Among the California laws impacting minors in effect for 2009 is AB86, which addresses on-line bullying during school hours or school-related activities. This legislation gives schools the authority to suspend or expel students engaged in such activity. According to a press release from the office of Assemblyman Tim Lieu (D-Torrence), who authored AB86, the advent of chat rooms and social networking sites have made “bullying more commonplace”, and the results of “internet torment can be fatal”.

Sergeant John Weaver with the Placer County Sheriff’s office has witnessed cyberbullying as a common occurrence. According to Weaver, in the past children and parents would contact law enforcement because of electronic bullying in one form or another and about 95-98% of this bullying was not a crime. “[The] Internet is today’s social club for kids. And man do they loose their inhibitions when using it,” said Weaver.Inspiration for this law comes in large part from the famous case in Missouri (mentioned earlier) where a 13-year-old girl, Megan Meier, killed herself in October 2006 after the mother of a former friend created a fictitious profile of a love interest and used this fake personality to engage her and then dump her. Worse than the cruelty of the hoax, there was national public outrage that it was not a crime.

New laws are passed each year to correct what is unacceptable, immoral or unsafe behavior, and yet some things cannot be legislated.

In 2004, my son’s 8th grade classmate killed himself. And the conversations on campus about “why?” centered on grades and expectations parents have of their children. I had to explain to my son that the reason why someone takes his or her own life is because of a loss of all hope and inability to see problems as temporary, not because of one particular reason (grades, bullying, bad break up, cut from the team, etc.). Not surprisingly, according to news reports, Meier was also a very troubled teenager who was taking medication for ADD and depression, in addition to a history of being a victim of bullying. While Meier’s personal issues do not exonerate the outrageously mean-spirited conduct of the perpetrator of the hoax, it does shed light on this incident so we can deal in truth. And while it is true that crossing the street and driving a car can also have fatal results, cyber-powered bullying does have a particularly intensive, perspective altering power over the individual targeted. It is imperative that every parent understand that their child can be the target or the bully under the right circumstances and with the wrong kind of thinking. See Appendix C for more about cyberbullying prevention.

While AB86 provides disciplinary sanctions to help school administrators maintain standards of civilized conduct on campus, no amount of legislation or education code can take the place of common sense and decency. Parents are key. In addition to disciplinary codes, lessons at home are important.

Victim mentality of the Cyberbully

“Ask any bully, and they will tell you why they are the victim”, says Lezlay Holmes, a psychologist practicing in Folsom, Clifornia. She is the CEO of ParentHelpLive and works as a site psychologist for the San Juan school district. “Bullies are never to blame,” continues Holmes in response to the recent case of Phoebe Prince, a 14-year-old immigrant from Ireland who was bullied so badly at her high school in South Hadley, Massachusetts, she took her own life.

The Authority In Me: The Power of Family Life in the Network Culture - A Parent's Voice in the Cyber Wilderness

“When children are not grounded first by connection to the family, someplace secure where they belong, make contributions and are valued, they are vulnerable to the whims of the network, sometimes playful and sometimes sinister energy promoting actions and beliefs that are not always in alignment with our values.” –Joanna Jullien, author, The Authority In Me

And if the relentless harassment and violence climaxing with Phoebe’s suicide was not enough, after her death these bullies continued to berate and bad-mouth her on Facebook, telling the State police they did nothing wrong and had nothing to do with her death.

They had demonstrated zero compassion for this fellow student, a fellow human being. They demonstrated moral bankruptcy.

Three months after Phoebe’s death, and in response to public outcry for justice, nine of the bullies, male and female, were arrested in the last week of March 2010 for statutory rape, harassment and assault with a deadly weapon associated with Phoebe Prince’s death.

The mother of one of the bullies arrested was quoted as saying her daughter did nothing wrong: “She only called her names.”

Huh?

While heartlessness is not a crime in itself, one would think that common decency would cause a parent to wonder why their child would gang up on another student in such a cruel way. This act of minimizing their child’s part in the total inhumane act is hard to swallow.

Holmes observes that we have become a society of “deflection”; we are loath to hold our children and ourselves accountable. Holmes has observed that many parents are afraid of judgment against them and their children, so they minimize and deflect when their children do things that are unacceptable or abhorrent.

When asked how the taunting could have escalated to this extreme level of violence and hatred, Holmes explains bullies who relentlessly and heartlessly harass and assault others demonize their target in order to justify their actions.

Holmes adds that if we are to raise children into high functioning adults and good citizens, it is imperative that parents hold children accountable for their actions before bad deeds or crimes escalate to the point of no return.

“Without judgment,” said Holmes, “parents need to deliver the consequences. Make sure your child understands why their actions matter. Why it is important that their behavior, their conduct meets a basic standard.” And more importantly, parents are the most effective role models. “If we are angered by getting a ticket, rather than accepting responsibility for speeding, rolling through the stop sign, or violating the parking sign, then we are demonstrating victim mentality for our children,” said Holmes, “Our children need to see us acting responsibly on all matters.”

The Phoebe Prince bullies illustrate the outlandish extent children can push limits; the lack of self-control in this case is egregious. Clearly, the bullies lacked respect for others and self that would enable them to govern their conduct according to civilized standards – which Holmes and Rosemond would argue is more than likely lacking in the home. The comments of the mother defending her “bully” child’s innocent part in the entire affair typify this point.

Phoebe and her bullies were incapable of recognizing their own inherent authority to stand alone regardless of what others were doing. Without minimizing the torment Phoebe endured, it must also be understood that she had many other choices, which she was not able to perceive. When a person takes her own life, she is incapable of seeing her current circumstance as temporary. She cannot see any other way out. So Phoebe and other children who have committed suicide illustrate why it is equally important for “targets” of bullying, especially because it is now extremely intensified by cyber technology, to identify with their inherent authority to know truth – that because they were born, they do matter, regardless of what anyone else says or does.

Unfortunately, we are not lacking examples of this problem of “deflecting”, and ego-driven cruel behavior, de-humanizing victims as targets.

In October 2009, a 15-year-old girl was gang raped outside the school gym as the homecoming dance was in progress in Richmond, California made national headlines. Incredibly the assault went on for approximately two hours with as many as 12 attackers involved.

This attack occurred on a busy campus on homecoming night. It was not an isolated field or in a dark alley. Clearly there was no “stand alone” behavior during those two hours. Not a single individual was able to “stand alone” and put a stop to the brutality – it was mob mentality run amok. In a CNN report, as many as 20 people were involved in the attack or watched. In a CBS report the police said that on-lookers failed to report it. When police were finally notified about the attack, they found the girl left semi-conscious on a picnic bench.

And as I write this (Spring 2010), the headline just came across Google news alerts about a dying girl in Trenton Michigan, cyber bullied by an adult neighbor, Jennifer Petkov. Seven-year-old Kathleen Edward is suffering from Huntington’s disease, which took her mother’s life in 2008. Petkov reportedly posted pictures on her Facebook account of Kathleen with an image of a skull and cross bones over her face, and an image of her mother lying in the arms of the grim reaper. Apparently, the motivation for this cruel behavior was a dispute with Kathleen’s grandmother. The public response to this cruelty generated donations for Kathleen’s medical costs.

This use of Facebook illustrates how people justify cruelty by de-humanizing targets; as Holmes points out every bully claims to be the victim. The power to amplify cruelty, however, is a recent development of the ‘Net’ that requires our children to always seek the security of family morals and come home for answers and comfort.

More importantly, to achieve the security of self-governance and “stand alone behavior”, we need to be clear about the importance of self-respect and respect for others on and off-line.

Rosemond offers additional insight about how children [and some adults] can be so intensely cruel. Contrary to post-modern psychology, he cautions against the case for “self-esteem”, wherein we are encouraged to cater to our children’s every whim and avoid hurt feelings at all costs. He cautions that self-esteem leads to an entitlement mentality and low self control, as demonstrated by the homecoming school dance attackers and Phoebe Prince’s bullies (Rosemond, pp. 55-56).

Rosemond points out that self-respect and self-esteem are not synonymous – rather they are polar opposites. (p.73)

“Self-respect develops as one treats others with respect and dignity, no matter their station. As respect is given away, self-respect grows within. This creates a constant ‘feedback loop’ – as one treats others with respect, self-respect develops, thus enhancing one’s respectful treatment of others, and so on…On the other hand, a child develops self-esteem not by giving, but by getting. Self-esteem develops courtesy of people who do things for the child, create success experiences for him (even false success experiences), and praise him, as well as courtesy of things he does for himself. As self-esteem grows, respect for others diminishes. Self-respect is synonymous with a generous heart, while the heart of a person with high self-esteem is subjugated to selfishness.

People with high respect for others (and therefore, high self-respect) are fulfilled no matter their status, salary, or state of material wealth. High self-esteem, on the other hand, creates the illusion of self-fulfillment. It creates a craving for attention, recognition, status, dominance, and things, no amount of which is ever enough.” (pp.73-74)

Personal power comes from self-respect and when it is surrendered bullies and victims are created. This is something that our founding fathers appreciated when they established a republic, rooted in the knowledge that our Creator is the supreme power and the supply of all things we need. People who intimidate, bully and tread on others do not have legitimate authority plain and simple.

The sooner we help our children of the Web appreciate this truth, the better.

Another aspect of network pressure is the lies of the popular culture, which at first glance seem similar to previous generations and were discussed in the Introduction. What is not understood by many parents today is the amount of pressure applied through network technology which makes them seem so normal in their friend communities. Below are some examples.

Everyone is drinking alcohol and using drugs. It’s the new norm for teenagers.

  • Prescription drugs are safe. Doctors prescribe them.
  • Sexual intercourse is required to be “intimate” and/or accepted.
  • I am invisible unless I have a presence on Facebook.
  • The number of “friends” in MY community is how I measure my importance or worth.

And yet with all this potential risk, the optimist in me focuses on how the network culture is selecting for character. For parents, the challenge in raising cyber secure citizens is to help set their moral compass with your family values and armed with the wisdom of your life experience so they can face this very same network pressure with confidence.

***

…Chapter 4 – Summary

  • Wisdom and self-discipline are exponentially important for our children to succeed, and be happy and secure in the network culture.
  • For parents, this means exercising their inherent authority as guardians.
  • Network pressure includes beliefs and values about their identity, sex, drugs and alcohol that are beneath them, cyberbullying, sexting, and connections to pedophiles trolling for insecure children seeking attention; children are at risk of the psychological and possibly physical harm.
  • In this context, “stand alone” behavior is the product of strong character that promotes personal security. When children know who they are (first as a member of your family), can rely upon their values and beliefs for decisions and choices encountered with peers and in the network culture – they can: resist pressure to allow or participate in bullying; be more likely to avoid the traps of drug and alcohol abuse; or to buy-into the fear-based mentality of perverts who seek to engage children in illicit sexual encounters and keep them in bondage with secrets.
  • It is important to distinguish between self-esteem and self-respect. Self-esteem is self-centered and if over emphasized can lead to insecurity. Self-respect is a source of strong character, allowing the individual to find that intersection between self-interest and the greater good of the community (be it family, friends, team, campus, or neighborhood).
  • Personal power comes from self-respect and when it is surrendered bullies and victims are created.
  • Network culture can make the lies of popular culture seem like new norms – amplifying pressure beyond anything we experience as children through our peers.
  • When your child has a moral compass with your family values it is easier to maintain stand-alone behavior in the face of network pressure to make choices that are beneath them (i.e., binge drinking, prescription drug abuse, casual sex, cyberbullying).
  • Happiness is a choice; and ultimately it’s a matter of character. Yet we live in a consumer network culture that says: “You are the customer, let me make you happy.”
  • Emotional intelligence, also a product of strong character, enables the child to rise above challenging or disparaging circumstances and develop responses to life’s challenges (big and small) in ways that are constructive, not destructive.
  • Left unchecked, the network culture encourages the opposite of emotional intelligence.
  • The network culture challenges emotional intelligence because so much of what is featured, discussed, hyped is not really important but nevertheless can appear real.
  • Custodial networking is strategic communication among parents about what is happening in our children’s lives. When parents witness or learn that another child is engaged in risky or unlawful conduct, sharing this information with respect for the individuals (no gossiping) and confidence that the right things will be said and done by the right people to help the child stand corrected.
  • There was a time when limits and expectations for discipline were commonly respected. Today our common culture no longer integrates those limits to support good-decision making. So custodial networking is even more imperative to reinforce the good choices our children make. (See Appendix D for the Custodial Networking worksheet).

 Review more samples of and order The Authority In Me.

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About Joanna Jullien

Joanna Jullien

Joanna (jullien@surewest.net) and her husband have raised two sons in Roseville, CA. She has a degree from U.C. Berkeley in Social Anthropology (corporate culture). Her honors thesis was awarded the Kroeber Prize and funding from National Science Foundation grant. Joanna writes to help parents with the modern-day leadership challenges of raising children. She is a contributing writer for The Granite Bay View, the Press Tribune, the Sacramento Examiner, and editor of Banana Moments.

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