No…not the Sex Talk. The How Not To Be An Asshole On The Internet Talk.
Which should now be as important of a talk as the Sex Talk, in my opinion.
My daughter started her online life with a private Instagram account. I approve who she follows and I accept who follows her. I do let her follow some of her favorite celebrities, accounts that I also follow and know to be “safe”. However, this small exposure to the weirdness of the internet has already moved us to have The Talk. It started first with her noticing commenters on Grant Gustin’s account being all obsessive and, “PLEASE FOLLOW ME, GRANT! I LOVE YOU SO MUCH.” So we talked about how weird that is. But then she saw someone on Stephen Amell’s account tell him he was a horrible actor and his show sucked and I thought she was going to cry, just reading that.
“Mom! How awful is this? It’s okay not to like someone’s show, but why would you be so mean about it?”
I’ve also been thinking about this topic a lot lately as people with a target become more vocal about their own bullying and harassment. Women online have recently been trying to publicly address the threats and harassment they get (See John Oliver’s Report on it here.) I also read John Green’s Tumblr post about being called a sexual predator – although I can’t find the original now – and I was mortified. Then there’s the attacks my Mommy Blogger friends have been getting for over a decade, attacks that are so malicious that when I got one tiny taste of it 7+ years ago I didn’t sleep for a month. Someone did a whole blog post calling me a terrible parent for not bathing my kids every day (which I had referenced in a post) and I almost took down my blog over it. That tiny exposure to the hate and meanness prompted me to turn down a request once from a big online magazine to syndicate one of my posts. “I know this sounds crazy,” I told them, “but I don’t want your traffic on my blog. It’s an honor to be asked, but I don’t want your crazies in my neck of the interwebs.”
So! What do we do about it? Some bigger names have been trying to address their harassers one on one. NPR did a story recently about a girl who made contact with a guy pretending to be her dead Father and he ended up apologizing and changing his ways. But that doesn’t always work and celebrities don’t really have time to do that with all of their harassers, and chances are a lot of them are dangerous. So, while it sounds nice when it works? It’s not practical.
Basically – we have a huge population of assholes who got access to the internet before anyone publicly addressed how ugly of a place it could be and the effects on that ugliness. We gave assholes the gift of anonymity for them to get out all of their asshole habits in a way where they have no accountability. I really think most of these people are probably not assholes in real life, but online they are. So, why do they not tell a women she’s fat to her face in the office, but they have no problem doing it online? Why do people not apply the same basic rules of respectful human interaction online as they do in person?
Because their Mom never told them not to.
Or their Dad, or grandparents, or best friend…but you get the point.
We all learned not to be asshats in person, but who taught us not to do it online?
NOW! If you knew not to be an asshole online without being told? Then congratulations! Seriously. Pat yourself on the back.
But, to prevent another generation of assholes overtaking the online world and forcing my favorite people to stifle their creative contributions for safety reasons and to protect their hearts from the damage this stuff inflicts? Then let’s talk to our kids.
First: Talk about Bullying
You have to have the bullying talk first. And you may not be motivated to have that talk if your child has never bullied or been bullied, but you should have the talk anyway. Use a story of someone else to prompt it. “I found out my friend’s daughter was being called pizza face at school! Do you ever hear that kind of treatment? Here’s why it’s wrong…” Have that talk. Explain the ripple effect of one mean insult. How it puts that person in a bad mood and then maybe they’re rude to the checkout lady at Target who is then in a bad mood and goes home and yells at her kids when they didn’t do anything wrong.
Explain how that can work the other way. I saw someone get out of their car in a drive thru lane to hand a credit card to the car in front of them who had dropped it. So, that person bought the meal of the person behind them. That person laughed, and bought my meal behind them. (I only bought a Diet Coke, they got off easy.) So, I laughed and bought the meal of the person behind me. That one small gesture, getting the credit card, turned into several people doing nice things for strangers.
Which would your child rather do? Start a chain reaction of asshat-edness? Or awesomenesss?
Show them Online Examples BEFORE They Develop Bad Habits
It’s so easy to blow off a quick mean comment on an article or a blog. It’s easy to type it, forget about it, and move on. So easy that people do it ALL THE TIME. Read them comments on YouTube. Read @ replies on Twitter. Ready comments on AL.com. Show your kid examples of how many mean people are online every day leaving horribly mean comments for strangers online. Let them see that stuff BEFORE they become jaded internet users. Tell them how disappointed you would be if you were 60 years old and found out your grown child was leaving mean comments about people online. Make your voice the one they hear inside their head before they do that stuff.
Tell them it is NOT a victimless crime, which is how it seems to be treated. Remind them that kids have killed themselves over online bullying. Remind them that celebrities have had to give up their online accounts because of it. Whether it’s Chris Pratt or the kid in their Biology class, NO ONE deserves being bullied online.
Teach them to stop reading/watching/listening to something they hate. That’s what I don’t get, people will come on YouTube and be like, “I don’t know why you’re so popular. Your videos suck.” Well, um…DON’T WATCH THEM THEN. Teach your children that no one is forcing them to watch the TV show they hate or listen to the band that angers them. Just don’t read that blogger’s writings…it’s so simple. The decision to read the writers you hate and then leave mean comments or write mean responses on your own blog, just creates the ripples of asshat-edness. We only have finite time in this world, teach your child the value of that. Spend time reading/watching/enjoying things they LIKE, not things they HATE just so they can be mean.
But…teach them about constructive criticism. About how, if they really want their opinions to be heard about something they didn’t like, there’s a way to do it respectfully. If they want to voice their hatred of a book they read, they can do it with respect – not just write some sort of trashy diatribe about the author. There are ways to deliver negative criticisms without bullying or being an asshole. TEACH THEM THE VALUE OF THAT.
And teach them that famous people in big movies have feelings too. They may not read every word, but they often go on record talking about how much it stings when they see those mean comments – especially on Twitter. Once accidental click in the “reply” column and they see horrible insults cast their way. Teach your children that those words matter and why would they want to create those ripples of meanness? How far would they spread? What if those ripples touched someone they loved?
The only way this is going to change the environment is if we raise our kids differently than we were raised. Our parents didn’t know to talk to us about this stuff because it didn’t exist yet. We MUST talk to our kids so we can create a safer place for creators online. Especially talk to our sons because most of the harassment online is from Men to Women. We need to teach our sons that rape threats are never funny and that they are always serious. We need to teach them to imagine women they love, moms, sisters, grandmothers…on the other end of those insults. How would you feel if someone said that to your Aunt? Your Grandmother? Your little sister?
And we need to all REPORT THAT SHIT. If you see a threat in a comment or an particularly awful tweet to a celebrity, REPORT THAT SHIT. Flag it as “inappropriate” – whatever the click is that allows you to turn in a commenter for harassing or threatening – DO IT. Teach your children to do it. The only way these networks are going to be able to manage the quantity of mean shit that crosses their comment boards, is if we help as a community.
The internet is never going to be a place populated by only rainbows and unicorns, but maybe we can try to reduce the population of trolls in the next generation.