Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Cyborg Orphans, School Filtration Policy, & Cyber-Bullying

I have been pretty silent lately on my blog as well as Twitter. I have suspended the Twitter part of my Twitter Book Club but have kept reading.  I guess I need some time away from this social media sphere.  I suppose it is fitting being that the book I am currently reading is Sherry Turkle's Alone Together. In Alone Together Turkle takes a rather critical view of the role of social media (as well as other technologies) in our lives and warns that all this online personification might not be very good for us. I have to agree to an extent. I have always had a conflicting relationship with technology and often find myself on the cusp of retreating to a one-room cabin in the mountains. However, new connective technologies are not going to go away. We have collectively as a planet adopted smartphones and all the connective applications that go with them as extensions of ourselves.  Turkle acknowledges this and postulates that with this kind of adoption that we are all cyborgs now for better or for worse.

I started my temporary social media retreat just following very sad news in early May of a teenager in a neighboring community who committed suicide after relentless bullying. Take a moment to watch this news segment:

Of course, in Rachel's case her bullies seem to have used far more than just electronic communications to torment her (as is nearly always the case) but in the interview with her friend's father near the end of this segment it appears what sent her over the edge was a text message. I have to believe that a lot of the harassment that happened in this case took place across different platforms as well.  We know her locker was one space for nasty messages and we know that they used SMS texts but I would presume bullying also took place in other places such as Facebook.

Now, in a strange twist of events it looks like no charges will be filed on any of the girls who bullied Rachel but charges may be filed on those who have now been harassing those bullies. It also looks like the text message that supposedly sent this girl over the edge was actually sent from her own iPod at her father's house. Police are not ruling this as a suicide yet but as an accidental death believing she was using the suicide attempt to get her father's attention. Her father believes she sent the text trying to get kicked out of school. Either way, it is clear that Rachel was crying for help and no one was really listening.

Even though it appears in this case that the cyber-bullying was oddly self-fabricated it doesn't change the fact that all of this could have been prevented by the adults in Rachel's life and the teachers at her school paying more attention. This means opening channels of communication and being responsive. There are plenty of other cases of cyber-bullying leading to teen suicide. Here are just a few:

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Now is cyber-bullying really any different than other forms of bullying? School bullies tend to do their taunting and harassment away from the eyes of teachers and other adults. Take Rachel's case again.  Where did the bullying occur? It occurred in the bathrooms, locker rooms, and hallways, places in the school that likely were not well supervised.  Facebook, YouTube, and other online social media as well as messages that can come across on the tiny screens of cell phones are just another place, another place where we can interact and another place where bullies can post harassing messages away from the eyes of adults. 

We are never going to completely stop bullying from happening. But, we can be proactive and work to reduce the number of places where our children might be bullied.  It is all about the environment.  Unfortunately, too many school leaders have had this same thought but come to the misguided conclusion that the way to reduce is to ban or block.  For years I have seen schools block access to social networking sites and ban cell phones in the classroom.  This does not prevent students from using these tools and it does nothing to curb cyber-bullying. It actually has the opposite effect.  An outright ban is akin to a school plugging its ears, closing its eyes, and singing, "la la la la la." It creates an environment where our kids are left to their own devices (quite literally). It creates digital orphans.

If Turkle is right and all of this connective technology really is not all that good for us these instances of teen suicides being linked to cyber-bullies is surely a clear example. Also, if being tethered to our online tools fundamentally changes what it means to be a person, if the sum of our physical and digital selves makes us all a kind of cyborgs; and the young are far quicker to adopt and adapt to new technologies, then perhaps there is some truth behind Prensky's notion of the Digital Native. If all of this is true then the children who enter our schools are adolescent cyborgs entering an environment designed for yesterday's children.  With their digital spaces accessible through 3G and 4G networks beyond the reach of the school's filter and school policies prohibiting teachers from entering those spaces with them we are creating a breeding ground for disaster.

If our children are coming to school tethered then the school needs to be tethered as well.  The school needs to take responsibility for acknowledging the presence of these digital spaces and must be responsive to the things students do and say in those spaces.  The school doesn't need to take responsibility for what the kids say but they do need to respond to it.  We need to open our filters, monitor student cell phone use, look, and listen.  If there is a problem the kids will let us know but only if they perceive us as being responsive to them.  If we don't create open and responsive learning environments we will only see more tragic consequences.  We will end up with a nation of orphaned cyborgs. 

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