I’ve always had a love-hate relationship with social media.
I love its neverending amount of content and the lively conversation. And the GIFs. (Oh, I love the GIFs.) I love stories like that of BatKid and the Ice Bucket Challenge—both not possible without the Internet.
But truthfully, social media can be a dark, scary place. Careers, reputations and lives have been ruined on Twitter and Facebook. And kids are especially vulnerable.
Take Rebecca Sedwick. Her story began, like so many others do, with a broken friendship and access to Facebook. She was deceived, harassed and humiliated by fellow classmates. Her inbox filled up with insults and abuse from familiar faces—and after one too many suicide suggestions, she listened and jumped.
Rebecca’s example is extreme, but there are too many tragic stories like this—if they don’t close with a suicide they remain open with long journeys of emotional recovery.
So what can we adults do to help students be safe online? Well, first, we need to make sure they are aware of the threat of digital harassment. Having the cyberbullying conversation with your children and students can make all the difference.
But more important, we need to make sure that we, as adults, set an example for civility online.
Can we honestly say we hold ourselves to a higher standard than what we expect from kids? After spending eight months watching and engaging in the contentious political and social online debate in education, I would definitively say we’re not.
It turns out you don’t need to be a pubescent teen with a mean girls clique and a collection of Pokemon cards (or whatever the kids are collecting these days) to be a bully—especially a cyberbully. It’s a game for all ages.
Ironically, even as we say we’re fighting for the kids, the education reform debate online is often intimidating, unproductive and vitriolic. “Better conversation” from either side is a rare gem in a wasteland of snipes and barbs.
So I’d like to urge us to model good behavior online with these three rules: transparency, honesty and civility.
It may seem ironic to say there’s a lack of transparency on social media when some feel we’re already lacking privacy online. But this isn’t about privacy, it’s about how our digital selves are often one-dimensional versions of who we really are.
It’s one of the great appeals of social media that we can pick and choose how our lives look on Facebook and Twitter. But the reality of who we are is always much messier. It’s important to show some humility and some humanity, too—and remember that others have sides we can’t see through an avatar.
It’s easier to fit attitude in a tweet and conveniently contort or cherry-pick your facts—or leave them out altogether. But being honest about what you know and don’t know is worth the space and effort.
If we’re going to converse with purpose online, we can’t hide behind talking points or ignore evidence. Even if all you have to offer is an anecdote or opinion, that’s okay. Just be truthful.
Seriously, be nice. Be the reasonable voice online. Don’t join a conversation just to add vitriol. Go in with a noble purpose and leave with a positive result. Even if that result is deciding not to engage next time.
If you wouldn’t say to someone’s face what you’re about to tweet, don’t say it. When we’re engaging online, it’s our responsibility to remember that there are actual people behind those profile images. It might be a lot easier to let loose with insults on social media, but what we say online still hurts just as much as it would offline.
We need to start holding ourselves accountable online and making sure our conversations are facilitating change and driving progress. It’s time to pull ourselves out of this 140-character induced rabbit hole of insults and snarkiness and start communicating with purpose and respect. If not for ourselves, then at least for the kids.