Saturday, December 15, 2012

Anonymity and the Net

There is an inherent sense of anonymity built in to all modes of social media. This can be a good thing if your aim is to create an online persona in the event you wish to publish under a pseudonym, tweet as a character you have created in your writing, or post under your maiden name to avoid online detection of private status updates by your teenaged students. In most cases, however, the anonymity afforded by many online sites becomes a mask behind which those who disparage others hide. Perhaps the most frequent use of social media to this end is in cyberbullying. When I was a youth, bullying took place face to face, we always knew the identification of our tormentors, and there was a serious threat to our physical well-being in addition to our emotional well-being. Teachers felt free to ignore our reports, and telling us to ignore the bully and s/he would go away was classified as "doing something" about the problem.

Welcome to the new millennium where online bullying runs rampant, partially due to the anonymity factor, but also because it is easy for cruel jests to get sucked into the black hole that is cyberspace where they are lost to all but a select few who know their way around and who have precious time on their hands to uncover those small lumps of coal within the diamond mine that social media can be. Unfortunately, there is more publicity about Amanda Todd stories than positive ones about young people utilizing social media to exact social change. One example of this might be to use these sites to report incidences of cyberbullying rather than LOLing, retweeting or +1ing them. And while zero tolerance for bullying policies now extend beyond the confines of the schoolyard and into physical and online communities, it takes a strong-willed, sensitive principal to follow cyberbreadcrumbs and get to the bottom of reported cases of cyberbullying with as much zeal and sense of responsibility as they do for offline bullying.

Surprisingly, adults are not immune to the effects of online bullying. Teachers have been suffering through it every day of late, as people of all ages and from all walks of life lend their cybervoices to teacherbash with increased frequency. Web sites like RateMyTeacher give students and parents of said students from elementary through post-secondary a forum to lie about their teachers, blaming them as the root cause of all their problems--real or imagined--anonymity guaranteed. Sounds like a sweet deal, until you consider that poor teachers are not given the opportunity to confront their cowardly accusers. Isn't the right to confront one's accusers a basic tenet of some constitution or other?

The problem is, teachers deal with immaturity every day. They battle with children in adult sized bodies who refuse to accept responsibility for their own actions. If they fail, the teacher doesn't like them, or she's a hard marker; it has nothing to do with the fact that they arrive late, talk or tune out during lessons, and leave everything until the last minute when there is no time left to produce any sort of passable work. In their anger at getting into trouble, parents having been notified, or the realization that the month of July will be spent in credit recovery, social media becomes a handy outlet to besmirch the professionalism of the teacher. It is an opportunity to rally friends and family around you in cyberspace for a huge digital "there, there", an opportunity that teachers, in their professional maturity, are not afforded.

Though I don't advocate censorship of the net, I do advocate parental control of children using the net. Parents should make it a condition of their children owning a Twitter, Google+, Facebook, Pinterest, etc., account that their parents are a part of their circle of friends, followers, and the like. This might make the children--and let's face it, teenagers are children--think twice before they post. They might not mind if their friends see the posts, they might not believe their teachers are intelligent enough to find their posts, but if they knew their parents (or worse, grandparents) were reading their posts, it's just possible that it might make a difference.

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