One moment that stands out for me in this moment is a flashback to my Children's Rights course from last year. We would often discuss the internet, the permanency and unforgiving nature of the internet, and how do we balance children's autonomy and right to their own mistakes with our duty to protect children. At no time are the answers clear cut, yet in this instance it is painfully obvious that we all got it wrong. To think that in one moment, one photograph could have such devastating haunting consequences is something that we rarely think about when engage online. The internet can be a wonderful tool, it allows us to communicate with people we would never meet otherwise, stay in touch with friends and family near and far, engage politically, become aware of the world around us, and yet it can be such a dangerous place as well. Grounds for sexual predators, cyberbullying, harassment, identity theft. It's a tricky thing for those of us who come to the internet as adults to manage, even for those of us in my generation, the first generation to grow up on computers. For those growing up in the internet age now, even seeing firsthand in schools the damage that being online and on social media in high school can cause it's hard to grasp the enormity and the challenges that kids today are going through, with little to no guidance from anyone.
Even this small piece leads me to so many questions. Where are the discussions on online literacy and safety? When are we starting to have these conversations with young people? Why are we handing children a mouse or an iPad without talking to them and not just once, but frequently about their behaviour online, the behaviour they see online, internet safety, what the darker side of the internet can look like. I don't believe that a 12 year old can have any concept what taking a picture like that can mean. That once it is out there it's impossible to get back, as I know many many young people have found out the hard way. Why are we not teaching young people these things from the moment they lay their hands on a computer? I know as those of us who care about or work with children are only just starting to truly recognize the importance of this work and this education, but we have to catch up and fast.
Beyond that, where are the gatekeepers? By this I mean, where is the pressure on social media websites to actually shut down pages or accounts that violate terms of service agreements or let's go one step further and talk about pages with illegal content. I recognize that social media websites are huge and only increasing by the day, but it is crucial that there is adequate staffing and attention paid to policing at a bare minimum what is reported as harassment and illegal content. In this case, the image of a 12 year flashing herself that has been described, falls under the area of child pornography, and had websites like Facebook responded appropriately there was significant action that could be taken. The page could be taken down, the IP address of the poster could be reported and traced, the person tormenting this young lady could have been found. Why do those who have legitimate crimes perpetrated against them online have so little recourse both legally and through websites where these crimes take place?
Where are the adults online too? I have seen so much controversy that asks questions like "Should teachers, counsellors, doctors etc. be online? Should they be "friends" with their students, clients, patients etc.?" I'm never going to be the person to say that I think a professional should mix their personal online identity with their professional online identity, but honestly, when has it ever been a great idea to leave young people in large groups alone unsupervised? If young people have trusted adults, and for every young person that is going to be a different mix of professionals, family, community members that make up the group of trusted adults in that young person's life, who can at least keep a silent eye on what a young person is up to online, and be there to instigate discussion if necessary, I don't see that as bad. Yes, like anything else, there needs to be clear purpose and discussion of role etc. when professionals engage with clients/patients/etc. online, but it's time for us adults to stop questioning whether young people need our eyes online and to start figuring out how we do that professionally, respectfully and responsibly.
I also wonder about the social pressure to be online. Why has Facebook and other social media become essential in this day and age? I wonder about concepts like digital surveillance. How social media has allowed us to police each other in new forums and new ways than ever before. I wonder what would have changed for this young woman had there been support to help her disengage from the social media battles that were destroying her life. I wonder why we feel that we have to engage in these specific ways when they have such potential for hurt. Where is the line between where they add to our lives and where they become harmful addictions that we can't escape from. Where does a connection or post online become more important than what happens face to face?
There are so many questions that I have as a CYC. How can we expect to know who we need to reach out to when we engage with youth face to face and not online? How can we identify something that exists outside of a realm we almost purposefully keep ourselves away from? How do we work with young people who experience this kind of victimization? How do we start to do more to work with all young people from all sides of the cyberbullying equation.
I have other questions too. Questions like what have we done as a society that makes a 12 year old think that exposing her breasts online is the norm or necessary? Where have we failed at bringing up young people who can critically deconstruct what we see? Heck, why do we as a society perpetually force hypersexualized images of women down the throats of young girl's throats virtually from the womb. Not so virtually even if you take a critical eye to some of the baby clothing out there.
Another post I saw also talked about protection for victims of cyberbullying. I've heard stories from young people that have broken my heart, about being the victim of many different kinds of incidents, the perpetrator serving their punishment, and then coming back to school. While I recognize that it is equally important to recognize that someone who perpetrates these acts has as much of a right to forgiveness, education etc. Often these critical points of reintegration aren't done without any kind of reconciliation or work towards protecting either young person. When handled poorly a young person can be re-traumatized again and again.
One of the things that breaks my heart about this story in particular is the way that this mistake seemed to follow this young woman wherever she went no matter how hard she tried to escape or how far away she went. In part this is the nature of the internet age. So much of me hopes though that we could have done better to give her skills to manage a better start. If we could have worked with her to build resiliency, and to help her face that these same issues could resurface for her. Would it have helped her to have a plan when these photos resurfaced? How do we help children who have experienced incidents who are looking for a new start prepare for what might happen when an old story or experience follows them?
There is so much more that I could bring to this discussion, that will undoubtably happen as I process it more, but right now I feel sad. I hope that we can move from sadness and tragedy to a much larger conversation and move towards action as well. It is so very very tragic that we have lost another young person, but also so important to look to what we can be doing to help the many others going through the same thing.