Just fun?

8 Oct

A mother phones me on a Sunday afternoon 14:45. Not the time of day for something serious, you would think. Her topic of discussion turns out to be more serious than what you would expect. She tells a story of young primary school girls that are frightened, anxious and stressed. The cause is a social network message on a cell phone sent to these girls by an anonymous person.

There are apparently two messages going around. Both these messages are from an adult viewpoint strange and somewhat silly, yet many of the recipients of these messages are seriously affected. Basically these messages tell stories of dead toys (I thought all toys are inanimate) or dead people that are not really dead and that these “dead” beings would take a terrible revenge if the message was not passed on to 12 recipients. The effect on some of these girls was indeed disturbing. They had nightmares and some became so stressed that it affected their normal functioning.
Children as young as 11 and 12 participate in social networks. In South Africa, the free instant messaging application MXit (pronounced “mix it”) runs on multiple mobile and computing platforms. MXit has 11 million registered users, generating 250 million messages a day! Facebook has 6 billion regular users. It is cheap, convenient and quick. Most of these registered users are between 15 and 25 years old; clearly part of the divide we used to call the generation gap. The cell phone has become the preferred way of communication for young people. A recent article in the New York Times (June 27 2010) said: “Schools these days are confronted with complex questions on whether and how to deal with cyber bullying, an imprecise label for online activities ranging from barrages of teasing texts to sexually harassing group sites.

Research shows that 1 in 5 middle school children has experienced bullying. Bullying is not a consequence of social networking – it has always existed. One of the more disturbing aspects of social networking is the opportunity created for anonymous bullying.  What is interesting though, is that this specific type of bullying has become somewhat of a speciality of girls. This can be so serious that it merits attention.

We used to think that only boys and men are bullies (sorry guys, we apologise). In the last 10 years, however, there has been a growing awareness that girls also bully and that their bullying is particularly insidious with long term implications for the bully victims. Boys act more robust, and they are naturally more active and aggressive (the Big T-factor, testosterone). Male bullying behaviour tends to be physical fighting and intimidation through force. Girls, on the other hand, are much more subtle. They bully with finesse. There are not any blue marks or bleeding noses when girls bully. I attended a NAYEC conference in 2005 where I listened to the one presenter relating the following story: Two 4-year-old girls are playing a game where they are little kittens. A third girl asks if she can play with them and one of these two “kittens”, with wide-eyed innocence, replied that it would be impossible since the mummy cat is dead and there cannot be more kittens!

Social networks are the ideal vehicle for girl bullies. Based on my experience and the research done on bullying by boys, I deduce that physical threats would be utilized by the male cyber bully. Girls go for the soft underbelly. They bully by spreading lies and innuendoes (eg. “Her mother cannot afford a decent graduation gown”; “She is sleeping with so-and-so”; “She has never slept with any one”; “She is fat”; etc…). The victims suffer in silence because reporting this to your parents or teachers will guarantee you being ostracized by society. According to KidsHealth bullying by girls could lead to early depression.

Bullies flourish because there are bully victims. The question we must ask ourselves is why some people are bullied and others not? When we look at the phenomenon of bullying we have some knowledge on why young people bully. We can also draw up a fairly correct profile of a bully. Vijay Sharma (PhD) says that research at the Indiana University found:

  1. Bullies watch more violent TV at home.  
  2. They misbehave at home more frequently. 
  3. They spend less time with adults at home. 
  4. At home, when they are disciplined, they face more forceful parental discipline.   
  5. Bullies have fewer positive adult role models. Perhaps, they don’t get adequate opportunity for watching a lot of adults in their environments trying to win friends and influence people through communication, persuasion, or negotiation.  Consequently, they don’t get adequate opportunity to role model for ideal social skills.    
  6. Likewise, bullies have fewer positive peer influences. Perhaps, the peers with whom bullies identify are also trying to dominate others by fear and coercion.  
  7. Bullies also get into more fights.

Bullies often have “side kicks”. They walk around in a group and wait for a sign from their leader to attack. Bully victims are often loners and they find it difficult to fend off an attack. Their problem solving skills are not good and they find it difficult to handle a situation with humour.

All of this information is true for girls and boys. The big difference lies in the fact that it is much easier to identify a male bully. Female bullies tend to fit the “cheerleader” category and they know how to manipulate adults. Very few parents of mean girls will acknowledge that they have a problem. They deny any possibility that their little angels have the capability to be mean.

If we can return for a brief moment to my Sunday afternoon telephone call… For any sane adult the immediate reaction is: how absurd! Surely these girls know that teddies are inanimate and that there is no such thing as vengeful ghosts! Why do they believe it? This answer lies in how we raise our children. Do we raise them to be independent, resourceful and blessed with a healthy skepticism about what they hear, read and see? It is a crime to not teach your child not to believe everything they hear and read. In fact, if we raise children not to ask questions, to obey all adults and always show respect, we set them up for possible nasty encounters. Not all adults are worthy of respect and we have to teach our children to trust their instincts. The other aspect is that it is really not necessary or healthy for 11 year olds to communicate on social networks. That can wait till they are older, more mature and more resilient. I do think that parents must play a more forceful and positive role. One of the problems of social networking is that users miss out on tone of voice. Something intended as a joke would look in text as cruel and hurtful and it is as easy as ‘a click with your finger’ to send it on its way to reach a very wide audience.

I conclude with a quote from the New York Times article referred to earlier in this blog: “We had so many fights in seventh grade,” one girl said. “None of them were face-to-face. We were too afraid. Besides, it’s easier to say ‘sorry’ over a text.” [The problem though is that “sorry” is seldom clicked to the wider audience.] Another concurred. “It’s easier to fight online, because you feel more brave and in control,” she said. “On Facebook, you can be as mean as you want.”

Photo credit: Flickr http://www.flickr.com/photos/moriza/126238642/


2 Responses to “Just fun?”

  1. elsie December 4, 2011 at 9:34 am #

    Dit is baie interessant. Daar is in die Oktober uitgawe van National Geographic ‘n uitgebreide artikel oor die “Teenage brain”. Een ding wat sterk na vore kom is die drang om risiko te neem en die “beloning” van maatsgroep-goedkeuring. Ons wonder dikwels hoekom tieners sekere dinge doen. Dinge wat hulle weet nie reg is nie. Tog beweer hierdie navorsers dat die manier waarop die brein ontwikkel op daardie stadium, en dit is nogal dramatiese veranderinge wat in die brein plaasvind, tieners help om deel te word van ‘n toekomstige groep. Ek weet werklik nie of dit meisie-boelies verklaar nie, maar dat dit iets daarmee te doen het is voor die handliggend..

  2. mcajada December 2, 2011 at 10:12 pm #

    Baie dankie vir die post. Dit help my baie om my oë weereens oop te maak vir die boelie tegnieke van meisies. Wat dus nuttig is om vir kinders te leer is:

    Identifiseer die leun.
    Konfronteer openlik en kalm om die krag van die leun weg te neem.
    Die mag van boelie vir meisies lê daarin dat dit subtiel en dikwels anoniem is.

    Wat my egter steeds “baffle” is die hoekom. Hoekom het ‘n laerskool meisie nodig om telkens harmonie te kom versteur deur een teen ‘n ander af te speel. Ek verstaan nie heeltemal wat hulle dink hulle daaruit wen nie.

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