My little brother went to school on a Friday morning last June, and this is what he heard: That another boy, a sixth-grader, had written a Facebook status the previous night asking his friends to “like” it if they hated my brother. The “like if you hate” question, the last time this informant had checked, had gotten 57 thumbs-up. Verification for my brother’s generation–the younger half of my own–is a statistical rat race, counted in friends, followers, re-tweets and re-pins. On an ordinary Friday morning, my brother learned that his name had garnered 57 “like if you hates.” . . .
This sad fact reflects a reality that Mark Bauerlein wrote about in his excellent essay, “The Separate Lives of Adolescents,” for the book Acculturated: that with the rise of Facebook and smart phones, tweens and teens are now living, 24/7, in the social world of their peers.
The social world of Facebook is, for adolescents, a mirror image of the social world of school. Both are defined by status, group think, and peer pressure. So it’s no surprise that cyber-bullying would be a feature of the Facebook world of adolescents.
What is surprising is how prominent and popular the trend is. For a post written by kid who, I would guess, isn’t trained in social media management, 57 “likes” (for a hate) is quite an extraordinary number. In the absence of the Facebook post, how many of those 57 haters, I wonder, would have actually bullied Layden’s little brother in school? Probably only a couple–if that: the kid who wrote the post in the first place and, possibly, his friends. But on Facebook, the bullying took on a power in numbers that you was unusual. So what’s going on here?
Kids will always be vulnerable to peer pressure, which leads them to do, in many cases, stupid things. But at school, not doing something dumb is easier than doing something dumb, given the consequences of flouting the standards of good behavior. In other words, the social pressure imposed by adults in the school setting is part of the reason why there are relatively few bullies around. On Facebook, the situation is different. There are little to no social sanctions in that virtual setting.
Beyond that, simply hitting a “Like” button is so easy and mindless. It is such a simple way to declare yourself as part of the group, which–let’s face it–is what all adolescents yearn for. Social media analysts have found that once an item is “liked” by a handful of people, more and more people will continue to like it. It’s the principle of groupthink on the digital level. This is a brilliant insight for marketing. Unfortunately, bullies, who are in the business of marketing mean-spiritedness, can use that principle to their advantage.
Then there’s the issue of quasi-anonymity on Facebook. Because adults don’t seem to be lurking on Facebook, kids feel free to post things, make comments, and “like” items that they otherwise wouldn’t. Their Facebook identities develop into something quite different than their school identities. At school, they are trying to impress both their friends and their teachers, and so they are somewhat aware that they have to be at their best. On Facebook, they are only trying to impress their friends. My recommendation is for parents and teachers to friend their students and kids. That way, we’ll all be more responsible about what we post and don’t post.
Layden concludes that this gap between the social world of Facebook and the real world is really an artificial one:
There is no jurisdiction for the bullied, no separation between Web and reality. On the Monday after the Facebook incident, my brother dreaded school for fear of facing his 57 bullies, who probably never gave their likes a second thought. The answer is not to teach our middle-schoolers that they are not who they are online. It is, actually, quite the opposite. It is too late to establish distance. To end cyberbullying, we must use the closeness we’ve allowed to breed to our advantage. We must teach them that if one is a cowardly, bullying, rage-baiter online–no matter how many laughs had or page views generated or ad space sold–then one is a bully off-screen, too.
If you “like” what a bully has to say, then that makes you a bully too.