Originally published on Youthradio.org, the premier source for youth generated news throughout the globe.
By Noah Nelson
If you look at the moral panic that the mainstream media seems to be manufacturing about its number one competitor--social media--in the past few weeks, you'd think pulling the plug on the Internet is our only solution. The tragic suicide of Phoebe Prince is being used as an example of how social media services are a corrosive force in our society- even when the facts may not quite back that up. Take a look at these two key paragraphs from the AP story on the Northampton, Mass case as seen right here on the Huffington Post:
"The real problem now is the texting stuff and the cyber-bullying,'' South Hadley School Superintendent Gus A. Sayer told the Boston Globe. "Some kids can be very mean towards one another using that medium.'' He added, "Apparently the young woman had been subjected to taunting from her classmates, mostly through the Facebook and text messages, but also in person on at least a couple of occasions."
Sayer noted that much of Prince's bullying was "done online or by cellphones," while [Northwestern District Attorney Elizabeth] Scheibel reported that the harassment was "primarily conducted on school grounds during school hours and while school was in session."
So which is it? Is it the technology that's out of hand, or are (almost certainly overburdened) school officials sidestepping responsibility by laying the blame at the feet of the DemonNet?
Of course cyberbullying happens. But do we really need the "cyber"? Most young people live highly mediated lives, and the line between what happens online and offline is getting hazier every day. In a world where it's "OK" for guys to pack heat in Starbucks and for politicians to label rival districts with cross-hairs, we're really going to just blame the tools and not how we're using them? Social media has a wider set of applications than say, a gun, which is really only good for shooting things and intimidating people. The "moral math" involved is more complex.
In Phoebe Prince's case, the attacks by a powerful clique labeling her an "Irish slut" began in person, and metastasized online. What really sucks about all this, and why the first instinct is to shut the infernal devices down, is that social media holds out the promise of giving us broader and deeper connections with each other. Of bringing long lost friends back into the orbit of our lives, or giving us a sixth sense awareness of those nearest to us. Part of being a teenager is finding out that intimacy can hurt, and hurt bad.
Instead of trying to find a technological solve for anonymous online trolls and other species of jerks, we should be rallying around the need for a cultural shift in what we accept in our public discourse across the board. If there's one thing bullies of any stripe can't abide, it's someone standing up to them.
Until then, I guess we'll still be looking for the plug.
Noah J. Nelson, professional hypocritic and writer/editor for @YouthRadio, can be harassed on Twitter where he posts as @areyouthatguy. He would also like to point out that he considered using a toothbrush as an example of a limited use tool, then remembered that they're actually rather versatile.
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