A Network of Regional Youth Work Units, in England, collaborating across regions to promote good youth work and young people’s voices.
Hard on the heels of the reports of misogynistic Twitter trolls came the terrible suicide of 14 year old Hannah Smith as a result of cyber-bullying on Ask.fm. Sadly, this is not the only incident of its kind, in this country and around the world. Since last September, at least another five suicides of young people have been attributed to sustained vitriolic abuse from users of Ask.fm. Apart from the dreadful sorrow for those who knew the victims, and the utter waste of potential associated with every young person’s untimely death, the predominant emotion is bewilderment that others – mostly anonymous – feel not only able but compelled to behave in ways in which they presumably wouldn’t in ‘real life’.
The root of the problem?
Is it the shroud of anonymity and the peculiar distance from human interaction, the alienation that the internet offers, that brings out people’s sinister, abusive tendencies? Would they really behave this aggressively in their face to face encounters with friends and with complete strangers? If the latter, then we are in greater peril as a society than we realise.
Does the problem lie intrinsically with the internet itself, or with something else in society that this kind of behaviour is apparently on the increase? And what are we doing about it, collectively – apart from demanding that someone do something? Candidates so far have been:
And, you could add, people like me blogging about it in an effort to understand the issue…
Aside from the issue of blame (which is important and could ultimately lead to a resolution if it can be accurately and usefully attributed), it seems to me that while we await the result of calls for changes of legislation and policy, there are people out there who could do something – in all probability already are doing something – to support young people as victims and in reforming perpetrators of cyber bullying; and youth workers are right up there amongst the best placed to do this, not least because of the quality of their relationships with the young people they work with.
I don’t think the computer literacy of youth workers is the important issue here, either; there are debates galore on other blogging sites (presumably more in favour of cyber-savvy youth work, by dint of the environment in which they’re happening). The crucial element is the understanding of human interactions – and that includes via the internet. Electronic devices do not remove our humanity, however great a proportion of our time we dedicate to them; they are simply tools. Human relationships matter just as much – if not more so – in a technological age as before.
Anyone who has worked with me in an office environment will recognise this as the beginning of my pet rant when my computer doesn’t function properly: it’s a tool, not an end in itself; if it won’t do what it’s asked, then it’s just so much scrap metal and plastic… I am, unashamedly, a techno-sceptic; emails, a little light surfing and online booking, and this sporadic blog entry are the limits of my personal engagement with and interest in the internet; I do not own a smartphone. I write letters with a cartridge pen to my closest friends. I believe that there should be a choice about engagement with technology, rather than a culture of imposition, and I am happy to make this choice because I have the confidence and resilience to function as I wish in this regard.
This confession is not a smug self-justification; it simply explains why I find it even more puzzling than most (a) that people behave so offensively online and (b) that young people continue to frequent sites such as Ask.fm. It heightens my belief that we must focus on the value of relationships and help young people learn how to conduct them to their own and other people’s satisfaction, and how to avoid the lunatic fringe. This includes not simply an understanding of how to behave, but the development of resilience, a fundamental element of an individual’s independence and maturity, and a core element of youth work.
As I was reading about the sad stories of the young people who took their own lives in despair, I was reminded that the world has not been unaware of the dangers of internet interactions for young people. Each week as we identify research reports and resources for PYL’s email bulletin we come across relevant items; but especially poignant was this, taken verbatim from our update of 21 June 2013:
Resources from Anti-Bullying Alliance – http://www.anti-bullyingalliance.org.uk/anti-bullying-week/resources.aspx; including:
Advice on Ask.fm – factsheet produced by The UK Safer Internet Centre, offering online safety guidance about social networking site Ask.fm – users are able to ask questions anonymously which has led to problems with cyberbullying. http://www.saferinternet.org.uk/ufiles/ASK.FM-fact-sheet.pdf
If you do one thing after reading this blog, please make it finding and using the resources that will help protect more young people from abuse and despair. If you want to respond to this blog, great – but please do it politely and rationally, for all our sakes.