Choosing Our Cyber-Voices

“The true essence of humankind is kindness. There are other qualities which come from education or knowledge, but it is essential, if one wishes to be a genuine human being and impart satisfying meaning to one’s existence, to have a good heart.” (The Dalai Lama)

Troll dolls came originally from Denmark; inexplicably, they were one of the biggest toy fads of the 1960s in America.

Troll dolls came originally from Denmark; inexplicably, they were one of the biggest toy fads of the 1960s in America.

Over the summer, I wrote a few posts about bullying. I thought I was done with the subject, but one aspect of bullying I didn’t spend much time on is cyberbullying. The more I read and learn about bullying, the more I see how cyberbullying has taken bullying to new and insidious heights. I’ve been shocked to learn about the extent of it and the number of suicides and attempted suicides it has triggered—mostly in children and teens.

My friend Ann shared an excellent article with me from the Nov/Dec 2014 issue of Scientific American Mind. “Virtual Assault” describes the many ways people are bullied online or through social media, and the psychology of people who engage in such poisonous activities. It noted, interestingly, that “contrary to popular wisdom, bullies are not merely compensating for their own low self-esteem,” but often they are “perched at the top of the social hierarchy and demean others to cement their position.”

I also learned that people who engage in cyberbullying and attacking others on-line or through social media are referred to as “trolls.” It’s often up to the on-line community, says article author Elizabeth Svoboda, to establish norms and tell trolls in no uncertain terms that bullying is not acceptable. Svoboda also says one way to counter the damage of bullying is to step in and offer support to the victim. Silence isn’t golden.

The Damage Trolls Do

A front page article in the Seattle Times earlier this month addressed how Donald Trump is effectively using Twitter to outpace his Republican rivals for the presidential nomination. The article strayed from mere politics to describe how last year Trump devastated actress Kim Novak by posting a cruel tweet.

The reclusive actress—a glamorous movie star in the 1950s, now in her 80s—was convinced by friends to make a rare public appearance at the 2014 Academy Awards. As she was on stage making a presentation, Trump tweeted, “I’m having a real hard time watching. Kim should sue her plastic surgeon.”

Ms. Novak was devastated. She retreated to her Oregon home and didn’t leave for months, having fallen into a self-described “tailspin.” When she finally did comment, she called Trump a bully. Many other people expressed their disgust at his comment and he eventually backtracked. Later, he expressed regret for sending the tweet. He said, “That was done in fun, but sometimes you do things in fun and they turn out to be hurtful.” At the same time, he stood by equally unkind comments he has made about other celebrities.

It saddens me that so many Americans are supporting a person who believes sending so public and so cruel a message is “fun.” Just because you may have a “fun” thought doesn’t mean you should send it out to millions of people who, themselves, may forward it further. Words can hurt. Kindness counts.

YOLK Fights Temptation

I have to make a confession here: Ever since I learned that cyberbullies are called “trolls” and subsequently read about Trump’s cruel tweet regarding Kim Novak, I have mentally photo-shopped Donald Trump’s head onto a troll-doll, such as the one at the beginning of this post. Now, when I picture Mr. Trump that is the image I see.

I was oh, so tempted to actually photo-shop the picture that is in my head and post that on today’s blog. There’s no question that it would have been fun, and it would even convey a timely message about bullying, but it would not have been kind. I would be engaging in exactly what I am decrying. Although I am often willing to overstep political correctness for a cheap laugh, I knew I wouldn’t feel good about doing something like this. If I believe we have a responsibility to use the internet and social media for good, I can’t justify sending out an unkind image—however adorable it may be. I leave it to my readers’ imaginations.

Another Segue—But It’s All Still Connected

I recently watched a very interesting TED talk featuring Monica Lewinsky—yes, that Monica Lewinsky. Nearly 20 years after she was involved in one of the biggest scandals in modern American history, she is now an articulate and poised woman in her early 40s. She spoke movingly about her extremely high-profile humiliation in the late 1990s, about the aftermath that nearly drove her to suicide, about her decade-long silence, and her subsequent decision to take a vocal stand against cyberbullying. Many things struck me in her very candid and thought-provoking talk—I encourage you to listen for yourself—and one was extremely simple: our clicks matter.

We can change the unkindness being spread online and through social media by not clicking on it. Not clicking when we see a venomous, cruel, or provocative headline, not clicking when we encounter negative articles and message boards. It’s that simple: we manifest what we give our attention to, and if our attention is on the cruel and the crude, it will foster more of the same. Likewise, we can foster a positive and healthy cyberspace by choosing kindness, making kind comments, and taking the time to encourage rather than berate. With every click, we make a choice.

Trusting the Kindness of Others

When I started planning and setting up this blog nearly a year ago, I read a couple of books and a number of articles about blogging. I also talked to a few experienced bloggers. Out of the many pieces of excellent advice I got, there was one I chose to ignore.

Everyone said to set up the blog so I could moderate comments before they went public, or at least moderate the first comment someone makes, then, if I approve their comment, that individual is “pre-approved” for future comments. The other option was viewed as dangerous: to allow any comments to appear without an opportunity to weed out the crackpots.

WordPress is a great platform and it gives the novice blogger plenty of guidance and plenty of options. During set-up, I clicked the button that allows comments to appear without any moderation. It seemed to me if I was going to commit to kindness, I needed to trust that any readers who might visit the blog and take the time to comment would have good intent. I haven’t regretted it. I will also admit, though, that I did think that if anyone posted a rude or malicious message, it would give me an opportunity to test my kindness resolve—could I be gracious and compassionate if attacked online?

Without exception, the comments readers have made have been thoughtful, wise, and also kind. They’ve inspired me to think, sometimes to laugh, and always to feel grateful for the time commenters have taken to share their thoughts. If there are any crackpots out there, I haven’t encountered them (okay, maybe my husband, but being a crackpot is one of his most endearing qualities).

Through this blog and the WordPress community, I have met countless interesting, funny, wise, generous, smart bloggers. There is so much positivity in this community and I am better for the connections I have made here. That’s why I’m so surprised when I hear about the cruelty and malice some people engage in—usually anonymously. I don’t understand it; perhaps I never will. But if enough of us click mindfully, and choose kindness, perhaps the unkind voices will someday be stilled.

That will news worth tweeting….

“How would your life be different if…you stopped making negative judgmental assumptions about people you encounter? Let today be the day…you look for the good in everyone you meet and respect their journey.” (Steve Maraboli)

Choosing Between Bystanding and Standing Up for Kindness

“It is only with true love and compassion that we can begin to mend what is broken in the world. It is these two blessed things that can begin to heal all broken hearts.” (Steve Maraboli) 

Attribution: Donna CameronThe vast majority of young people are not bullies and are not the bullied. They’re bystanders, and this, I suspect, is where efforts need to be focused to make bullying a thing of the past.

It’s true with adults, too. We see bullying in the workplace, or perhaps on the sports-field or the grocery store parking lot, and we don’t like it but we don’t know how to intervene.

In the discussion of bullying—whether children, adolescents, or adults—the key to countering the abuse is motivating bystanders to step in and act in support of the person being bullied.

According to Megan Kelley Hall, co-editor of Dear Bully: Seventy Authors Tell Their Stories, “The bystander definitely has the power to help change the climate—with adults and children. In bullying cases with children, almost half of all bullying situations stop when a bystander gets involved.” She further explains that getting involved “doesn’t mean taking a stand or getting into the bully’s face, sometimes just the simple act of not giving the bully an audience or just taking the side of the victim is enough to get your point across.”

Helpful and Hurtful Bystanders

The website www.eyesonbullying.org describes both hurtful and helpful bystanders. The former instigate or encourage the bully, or sometimes they join in once bullying has begun. Sometimes they may not actively support the bullying behavior, but through their passive acceptance they condone the torment and offer the bully the audience he or she craves.

Helpful bystanders assess the situation and then directly intervene by defending the victim or redirecting the situation; or they get help from others present to stand up to or discourage the bully, or report the bullying to someone in authority who can intervene.

Why We Don’t Step Forward

The site also describes some of the reasons why bystanders don’t intervene. Among them:

  • They fear being hurt or becoming the target of the bully themselves;
  • They feel powerless to stop the bully;
  • They think it’s none of their business;
  • They don’t want to draw attention to themselves;
  • They fear retribution;
  • They fear that telling adults won’t help and may make the situation worse;
  • They don’t know what to do.

What to Do

The bystander’s reaction will set the tone for other witnesses and may serve to enlighten the bully without embarrassing or shaming them. Perhaps it will give them a means of exiting the encounter without feeling put down. Maybe—just maybe—it will teach them that there are more effective ways to behave—ways they haven’t learned at home and aren’t likely to. Silence and inaction sustain bullying. Whether the setting is the schoolyard, the workplace, social or recreational situations, or cyberspace, bullying must be nullified. For the vast majority of us who are neither bullied nor bullies, we have the responsibility to step in when we see bullying or other forms of cruelty. We need to say “no more” and model the world as we would like it to be.

It’s good to remember that everyone—bully, victim, and bystander—carries an invisible and heavy load. Perhaps one of the best reasons we are all here on this planet is to help others shoulder the weight of their load—even if we can’t see it and don’t know what it is.

The website www.bullying.org offers some excellent advice on what kids should do if they see someone else being bullied. Much of that advice is directly related to kindness. It suggests befriending a child who is being bullied—walk with them, eat lunch with them; involve or extend an invitation to the new kid in school or the kids who often seem to be alone. Don’t try to respond in kind to a bully—don’t fight them, make fun of them, or say mean things back at them—it usually makes things worse.

This is where parents and schools, and even the media, can help. If we have discussions about what to do when we witness bullying, we’ll be better prepared to act, rather than to be paralyzed by fear, confusion, or uncertainty. If kids—or adults—know that they can make a difference and are aware of strategies for intervening, they will be much more likely to do so.

Bullying Is Not a Rite of Passage

Jenny Hulme, author of How to Create Kind Schools, notes that bullying is not and should not be just part of growing up. “Bullying brings no benefits at all—either to the bully or the bullied. It can, instead, trigger a cycle of victimization that can last a lifetime. Studies have shown victims of bullying, including very able children, stand a much lower chance of doing well at school and are more likely to experience depression, anxiety and poor physical health as adults.”

According to Hulme, “Research into ‘bystanding’ demonstrates that people who are given a seminar on compassion, or were empowered to help others, are more likely to go against the majority” and step in to help someone who is being bullied.

Education is Key

Kids need to learn that bullying isn’t cool and it isn’t acceptable. They need to learn it at home, at school, from the media, and from their peers. And kids who are the target of bullies need to understand that there’s nothing wrong with them, and there’s nothing wrong with being different—it’s the bully who has the problem and the bully who needs fixing.

Schools and parents need to take seriously their responsibility to teach kids that it’s not enough not to be a bully, we must all be willing to step in when we see bullying, and let the perpetrator know it’s not acceptable. That takes courage, and courage—like kindness—is a capacity that strengthens with practice.

A Growing Kindness Movement

While unkindness and bullying are rampant, there also seems to be a growing movement to bring awareness of the issue, and growing efforts to both prevent bullying and nurture kindness. And, wisely, it’s often kids who are leading the charge.

Schools all over America—and in many other countries, as well—are building kindness into the curriculum, from K-12. Numerous programs have been launched to counter bullying—many created by and for kids. Among some great resources:

  • Kind Campaign – focused on helping eliminate unkindness between and among girls
  • The Great Kindness Challenge – with educational and “global” sites, it offers strategies and suggestions for practicing kindness in our everyday lives
  • Kidscape – a 30-year old U.K.-based anti-bullying organization focused on preventing bullying and protecting children
  • Bystander Revolution – lots of celebrities involved in this organization formed to counter bullying by focusing on kindness, courage, and inclusion.
  • www.stopbullying.gov
  • www.bullying.org

As we saw in an earlier post, “Adult bullies were often either bullies as children, or bullied as children.” It’s a cycle that must be broken. If you’re a parent, think about having a talk with your child about bullying and help him or her strategize how they will respond the next time they witness bullying. And do the same for yourself—whether you encounter it in the workplace, on the bus, or at a community meeting. Knowing in advance how we want to behave helps us to follow through when the circumstance arises.

Instead of standing by, let’s all stand up for what’s right.

“When we make judgments we’re inevitably acting on limited knowledge, isn’t it best to ask if we seek to understand, or simply let them be?” (Jay Woodman)

 

Little Bullies

“You cannot do a kindness too soon, for you never know how soon it will be too late.” (Ralph Waldo Emerson)

attribution: Donna DameronI have absolutely no knowledge, training, or experience that would qualify me to write about children. But I am an American, so the fact of my ignorance shouldn’t stop me. Look at our lineup of 2016 presidential candidates.

Long ago, I appropriated a line from a quirky and underrated David Mamet movie, State and Main. When asked if I have children, I always reply, “No, I never saw the point of them.”

And it’s partly true. That whole biological-clock thing never activated for me. I never imagined myself a parent, and never, ever yearned to hold a baby or fill my home with miniature humans. I’m very glad most people feel otherwise, else we’d be a dying planet of self-absorbed baby-boomers with no subsequent generations to act smug towards.

But as I explore kindness, a frequent issue I encounter is bullying. I’ve written a few times about adult bullies, but I can’t ignore the huge problem of children who bully, or are bullied, and the long-term destructive effects of those behaviors. The vast majority of adult bullies were also bullies as children, or else they themselves were bullied or abused. The earlier we address and counter bullying, the better the chances of preventing it or breaking its cycle.

I don’t remember there being a lot of bullying in my childhood—of course, one of the benefits of aging is selective memory. Back when mastodons roamed the earth and the trendy social media platform was Pony Express, there must have been girls who were bullies, but I don’t remember any. Throughout my elementary school years, there were two boys whom I recall being bullies; they picked on smaller boys and strutted around like bantam-weight princes. I don’t think we called them bullies, though perhaps the boys they picked-on did. Neither boy was very bright; I supposed their bad behavior may have been their way of dealing with the fact that intelligence was rewarded at Greenbrae School and they struggled to keep up with their fellow 3rd graders.

21st Century Bullying

Bullying today is scary. It’s practiced and experienced by both boys and girls. It goes beyond taunts on the playground—which is bad enough—to organized hazing through social media and unimagined cruelty. Cyberbullying, especially, isn’t something that occurs and is then forgotten. It resides on social media sites, it gets forwarded, it takes on a life of its own.

Bullying takes many forms. What starts out as playground taunting might escalate into sexual harassment, gang activity, domestic violence, workplace intimidation, or elder abuse. The sooner we make it clear to all that any form of bullying is unacceptable, and the sooner we help bullies learn other behaviors, the sooner we will see declines in these offenses.

Stories are everywhere of the devastating effects of bullying. On her website, www.kindness-matters.org, Jacki James recounts the long-term bullying her son Peyton was subjected to, which eventually led to his suicide. We hear other stories of the quiet kids who were bullied for years before they snapped and turned a rifle on their persecutors, bystanders, and then themselves.

After her son’s suicide, Jacki James became an activist for kindness and to counter bullying. She created the website www.kindness-matters.org, which seeks to change the ways people interact with one another and to foster kindness on a global level. Ms. James explains that “Children bully others because it gives them a sense of power that they are otherwise missing in their lives. Many times, a bully will be the victim in a different situation, maybe at home or on a team. So to make up for their lack of self-worth, they lash out at others to give themselves power in that situation. It is a way of deflecting how they really feel about themselves onto someone else.”

Bullies, according to Ms. James, need to understand the damage their words can inflict. “They need to understand that they don’t know the demons another person is fighting and just because the person they’ve abused smiles or laughs, that doesn’t mean they’re ok. It just means they’re hiding their true feelings and either holding it all inside or lashing out at another time.” She cautions that no one wants to carry the guilt of saying something cruel and later learning that they were the last person to speak to another who took his or her own life. “That is a guilt that will tear you up, little by little, every day for the rest of your life.”

Kindness is Learned…As is Unkindness

It seems pretty obvious that kindness is something we learn—or don’t learn—as children. And then what we learn—or don’t—accompanies us into adulthood, where we become kind adults, bullies, or sometimes bystanders.

In an extensive study of 10,000 middle-school and high-school students, Harvard researchers found that 80% of kids said they were taught by their parents that personal happiness and high academic achievement were more important than caring for people. Though parents express positive views about kindness, their behaviors often negate them, and “their messages about achievement and happiness are drowning out their messages about concern for others.” Not surprisingly, 80% of kids confirmed that they, also, valued achievement and happiness over concern for others. Nor should it be a surprise, then, if 30% of middle and high-school students report having been bullied, half of all high-school students admit to cheating, and more than half the girls in grades 7-12 report experiencing sexual harassment in school.

How to Raise Kids to Be Kind

That same Harvard study identified five ways to raise children to truly value kindness:

  • Adults need to take responsibility. They need to assure that their own behaviors match the messages they tell their kids. They need to walk their talk.
  • Give kids opportunities to practice caring and helpfulness. Kindness is a learned behavior and will be strengthened with repeated opportunities to extend oneself and feel the satisfaction of helping.
  • Teach the skills to find perspective. The study describes this as “zooming in” and zooming out”—this means learning to recognize kindness opportunities in one’s circle of friends and family, and also to see the bigger picture of the need for kindness with strangers, the community, and even on a vaster, global scale.
  • Provide strong moral role models. Here, researchers stress the need for parents to acknowledge their own mistakes and to listen to kids and help them understand the world and develop empathy.
  • Help kids manage destructive feelings. Feelings such as anger, shame, or envy are unavoidable—but they can be expressed in harmful ways or they can be instructive and constructive. Through conversation, parents can help kids navigate the normal emotional roller-coaster of childhood and adolescence.

Recently, the Seattle Times ran a compelling and wide-ranging interview by columnist Nicole Brodeur with Melinda Gates, philanthropist extraordinaire and co-founder of the Gates Foundation. Ms. Gates, who seems to be a tremendously wise and caring individual, was asked what one piece of advice she has given her three children that she hopes they will remember. Her answer: “…be kind to other people, always find that place inside of other people where you can connect….that’s something that we talk about a lot in our home and live out. Kindness and respect.”

Children’s book author R.J. Palacio contends that most kids are—or have the potential to be—“little warriors of kindness.” That potential is either nurtured or stifled by what they see and hear as they grow. What an immense responsibility then rests on parents, teachers, other adults, and the media.

Even speaking as someone who doesn’t fathom kids, I recognize that it’s up to us adults to see that kindness is encouraged and not repressed. It’s up to us to model the behaviors we hope kids will nurture in themselves. It may be the most important job we have.

It is up to us…are we up to it?

[Next time: bystanders are the key to putting an end to bullying.]

“Be kind; everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.” (Attributed to Philo of Alexandria, Plato, and Ian MacLaren)