Recently, more and more reports and interviews have been appearing in the news about the rise in cyber bullying. Teens are being harassed to the point of self harm or suicide as a result of comments from people online who mean them harm. Social media sites like Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and ask.fm, are remarkable for their ability to connect people like never before, but also bringing more people, anonymous and strange, right into your life.
Many people use Facebook daily to connect with friends and family far away. I admit, I check on my friends’ statuses several times a day. After all, I have a big family – about 95 first-cousins – and I have some friends who live on other continents, halfway around the world. It’s probably the best way for us to stay in touch (even though the USPS still offers some of the lowest rates in the world.)
The “Millennials” generation, those people who were born between 1980 and 2000, do not remember the pre-digital world we live in. Many teenagers right now have come to expect that they need to be connected at all times. I’ve talked to many adults, even, who think it abhorrent to actually switch their mobile devices off (oh, the horror!). I took my film camera, a Minolta X-370 SLR, with me one day about ten years ago, and I shot a picture of my niece, who was almost six at the time. After I snapped the picture, she said, “let me see it,” and she reached for my camera to look at the back. She was suddenly confounded when she expected see an image and instead saw only the black backing. I explained to her that it was a film camera, and that it needed to be processed. She was even more confused at this.
Now, she and her friends are so constantly connected – many of them using multiple social media sites at once – they cannot contemplate a world where you just disconnect. They gather at a friend’s house and sit on the sofa, smartphone in hand, and communicate – to other people who are not in the room, completely ignoring one-another. To my astonishment, adults are following this pattern, now.
Stand at a busy street corner and watch as people stop, pull out their phones, and proceed to text, check messages, or play “Angry Birds”, if not doing these while actually driving. It’s shocking to see how these devices have become part of our anatomy. We’re unable to be apart from them, and we receive “phantom” vibrations, perceiving a call or a message coming in, and discovering that no such thing has happened.
What strikes me as puzzling – and perhaps because I’m old and not in touch with the trend-setting demographic currently placed on the throne of public adoration – is that these teens who have been the victims of cyber-bullying did not simply block the offenders, or better yet, just drop off the network altogether. I have, on occasion, deleted my Facebook account after one or more individuals pissed me off with some political or religious bullshit. But I have some very important people in my life, and the internet is the very best way to stay in touch.
The internet has produced some wonderful things: streaming video, crowdfunding, finding missing persons, and stress-free shopping. But there are also scams, viruses that destroy your computer, and spyware. But I believe there are a still decent people out there. It’s just that the crooks and those who want to injure and cheat are pretty smart, and they have a plan.
There are good ways to protect yourself. Just as you would lock your doors and be aware of your surrounding to avoid being a victim of crime in the physical world, in the cyber world, we must be vigilant also. Being constantly connected and “always on” makes us more vulnerable, and we could all stand to take a step back, turn off the phone, and clear our minds (after you’ve finished reading this, of course).
It’s easy to forget, I suppose, that many people in the world today never knew what it was like way back. I myself have had trouble remembering what it was like when, to look something up meant reaching for a dictionary, and calling someone meant going into the kitchen to use the phone. When we left the house, people could not reach us. When we returned, we never knew how many calls we missed. And if we wanted someone to talk to, it was much easier just to go to their house.
My teenage niece has 800 friends on Facebook. I asked her if she really knew that many people. She insisted that she did, albeit unconvincingly. I have a rule on social media, that a “friend” is someone who I know well enough that I have been to their home. Of course, not everyone whose home I’ve visited is considered my friend. But it keeps me from accepting requests or suggestions for people who I don’t know personally, but are “mutual friends” of someone I do know. It gets so messy!
Sadly, the people who have lived next door to us for ten years have never invited us over for dinner, nor we they. It is a disturbing commentary that we live in a time where the community is now in cyberspace, and human civilization, for the first time in history, can exist purely in a virtual environment, allowing a “village” to be made up of bytes instead of bricks. It’s no wonder that people have become slaves to their social media accounts. If I knocked on your door instead of texting you, would you answer?