Cybermobbing is mobbing, not cyber

Somewhere almost out of hearing, children were at play. It was always a pleasant, lulling sound. Always provided, of course, you couldn’t hear the actual words.
“Hogfather” by Terry Pratchett

A while ago I had a short conversation about social media and so-called cybermobbing. It was only a short part of a 45 minute conversation, but one thing stuck with me. One person mentioned that teachers and parents feel overwhelmed when it comes to social media and don’t know how to handle cybermobbing.

Personally I think this person was wrong. No, teachers and parents do not feel overwhelmed by the social media. They really don’t. There is no real difference to communication via the Internet compared with giving sheets of paper around, or scrawling something on a bathtub wall. You wouldn’t blame the bad paper for containing hurtful messages either, would you?

No, the sad thing is that many teachers and parents do not know how to handle mobbing. Either they cannot or do not want to imagine how it is when children hurt each other. There is this strange view that children are innocent, esp. female children. Or that what they say (or do) does not matter, because they are children. And seriously, who gives a fuck about what children say or do? Nothing could be further from the truth (little angels my ass). As someone once said, before you develop a conscience, torture is fun. And children contained in a place they have to go to and cannot possibly leave — of course they act out. And in very effective and cruel ways, leaving lasting psychological (and sometimes physical) scars. Even driving vulnerable children to suicide. And some teachers even accept and welcome mobbing, as it gives the children a way of venting that is not directly against them.

So no, it’s not some form of “media competency” that is missing, or strategies for dealing with “social networks”. The issue is how to deal with children hurting each other to deal with their frustration, ostracizing each other, playing essentially pointless but psychologically serious mind games. But it’s easy to blame recent developments in technology to distract from a lack of willingness to grasp the nettle and deal with these serious social issues. Personally, I have encountered teachers ignoring mobbing, and parents just hoping it would all go away — way before the Internet got commonplace.

Sure, social media follows children who are mobbed home — if they go to the places where they are mocked and ridiculed. And sure, all the world can see the hurtful comments and pictures — but so can teachers, parents, and in some cases the police. And while the world might quickly forget after the next outrageous thing is shared, teachers and parents (and if needed: the police) should not. They should make mobbing very uncomfortable for the person doing the mobbing. And that’s perhaps the silver lining when it comes to mobbing.

The first thing you need to do to deal with mobbing is document it. You need proof — of what happens and how often it happens. Proof showing who does what — including those who cheer or “just” look on. And that’s the nice thing about social media. It leaves traces that can be used by all. Like all technology, it’s value neutral. It holds no allegiance. And if some children think they can use it to make fun of others, well, they are also leaving evidence that can be used against them. And the Internet is not as anonymous and lawless as many like to imagine.

But that needs people actually willing to confront the children doing the mobbing, and those who cheer on or just stand by. And with the digital traces they can be confronted. And yes, that is very uncomfortable for all involved, but even more so for the person who was mobbed. But it’s also the only way to deal with mobbing. And when you can show people what they have written — and who liked or simply read it and did nothing — that makes for a very interesting conversation. In comparison to pre-social media times when people were mobbed as well (and some victims killed themselves as well, there is no deniability. Technology gives parents and teacher who deserve this designation a chance to change something.

So no, looking back on that conversation, I don’t think poor teachers and parents so overwhelmed by the new technology. Children usually chose neither school nor their parents, and they might not have the necessary skills to deal with the situation. It’s the duty of teachers and parents to show interest and find out what happens. And sometimes that means to protect and intervene.

Don’t blame social media for something that always happens in social situations, esp. when those involved did not have the chance to learn how to deal with it. Use it to help them learn.