Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Bullying, the Law and the Media

I've quoted from Emily Bazelon many times in this blog. Usually, it is about a parenting issue inspired by her own parenting. For that reason, it is good fodder for me.

Her contribution in today's Slate is something different: a full blown journalistic investigation into the events surrounding the suicide of Phoebe Prince. Fuelled by criminal charges against 6 students, the media has portrayed the suicide as being a symptom of bullying out of hand -- including the use of new technology. Bazelon looks deeper and tries -- in the face of considerable difficulty in obtaining direct information -- to understand the story behind the hysterics. It is more complicated than portrayed in the media and what is clear that the attention and also the legal system has likely done far more harm than good. I recommend this article in its entirely to anyone.

I want to comment on just two aspects of the whole story. First, there is an issue with the role of technology in all of this -- specifically, Facebook and other social websites that allow rumours and insults to travel far and with the speed of light rather than over the speed of the playground as they did in the past. The reaction is often to ban those technologies where bullying arises. The problem is that, like all of these situations, teenagers are trying to find their social ground. If you cut of a tool that will be available later on you only push forward that learning into the future where it can potentially be even more damaging. We should all recount how many years it took for the norms of email use to be established. Those norms need to develop for these technologies too. The sad part is that while they remain out of official school business, we have those norms evolve without adult supervision. I think it is a mistake. Schools should be more proactive about adopting these things rather than having as their first instinct to push them away from the classroom.

Second, Phoebe had moved recently to the US (New England in fact) from Ireland. One thing that I have observed about my own children in moving schools cross-nationally is that, initially, their differences are a novelty but after a while there were some struggles. Each of my two eldest have recounted how they find engaging in humour more difficult than they had in Australia. That what they thought of as a joke or joking wasn't seen as such. This has led to awkwardness but eventually I am sure they will learn what the right things to say and do are. My point is that we should not underestimate those issues as playing a role here. For my pre-teen kids, it is joking, for teenagers it is all of the relationship stuff. Talk about a hard transition to make. This is something that the Slate piece does not bring out but I do think it will deserve some understanding into trying to make sense of all this.