As a teacher, I see and hear a lot about students who are affected by online bullying and social media shaming. The students are both victims and perpetrators depending on the day. But how can teachers help break this vicious cycle?
Starting the Conversation
I wish I had the time and resources to pull a Tina Fey with everyone in the gym doing trust falls and apologies. But that’s probably not an option and it doesn’t address the variable of the internet.
I found the absolute perfect Ted Talk for just this occasion. It’s Jon Ronson’s “When online shaming goes too far,” which you can watch here. Warning: Ronson does not censor the vulgar comments people have made online via Twitter. In fact, a screen behind him displays the words as well. No way can this be used in my classroom.
However, NPR Radio Hour did a segment on how screen time is affecting people’s brains and it included this talk. The radio portion is censored and goes a little deeper into the whys of online shaming. You can listen to it here.
This podcast is a great resource because you can focus on the academic aspect of analyzing argument while also addressing social media shaming. Ronson’s argument is that ultimately the internet has changed what we view as socially acceptable. Suddenly, people are either all good or all bad. A person who makes one bad joke or comment online suddenly deserves death threats. Hypocritically, we all don’t realize our own comments bashing others are even worse than whatever was originally said and deemed offensive.
He of course says it much better than I am saying it here, but I’m just trying to give a quick summary.
Support for His Argument
Ronson uses real-life adult examples of how damaging online shaming can be. This is perfect for high school students to see in order to realize this has implications beyond high school. Also more true to reality, he does not use celebrity examples. He uses Justine Sacco who infamously claimed she was white and couldn’t get Aids, and the example of the Philadelphia train crash survivor who wanted her violin back. Both made one offensive Tweet and had their lives turned upside down within hours.
Here Ronson points out how complete strangers form this online shaming community where just about anything you say to condemn the guilty party is completely acceptable. Ronson himself even points out he is part of the problem as well. He too has enjoyed watching a stranger get demolished by the online shaming society.
Connecting to High School Literature
In my own worksheets (which you can get here from TeachersPayTeachers) I connect this with The Scarlet Letter in how society feels the need to shame others. It’s a great extension for students to try to problem solve how we stop doing this as a society. Or, students can argue if it’s even possible to stop social shaming at all. We have been doing it for thousands of years.
Since Ronson equates online shaming to an online police force of sorts, this is a great extension to 1984. People can no longer demonstrate freedom of speech online for fear of retaliation and possibly real consequences such as losing their job, friends, and family (all of this happened to the examples he gives).