I tried to desist from writing about this. Really I did. There has been so much media about it. So many people shocked and appalled by this tragedy that I didn’t think it was necessary to voice my opinion.
But then, when did that ever stop me?
Here are my reasons for talking about it now:
1. I have two daughters around Amanda Todd’s age.
2. I work at a school with girls around Amanda Todd’s age and thus have the privilege of seeing this issue from many different perspectives.
3. Not only do I work at a school comprised of high school girls, I am also one of the main people responsible for talking to them about social media.
4. Around the time Todd committed suicide, I was giving a social media presentation to the Grade seven class.
5. Because I am shocked and appalled.
For those of you living under a rock or who have taken a little media break in the last month, Amanda Todd was a 15-year old girl who committed suicide after years of cyber-bullying, bullying and downright sexual harassment.You can watch her video:
Satellite issues in this case, and perhaps why there has been such a media frenzy are
1: the internet witch hunt for the person responsible for sexually harassing and blackmailing Todd as well as the guy who made such terrible comments on her facebook being identified and fired.
2: the callous reactions online (and offline) by her peers to her suicide.
So really, you can cherry-pick your issue here. Let’s count them:
1. Internet Safety
2. Online child predators
3. Cyber-bullying that quickly turns into
4. Physical bullying and shunning
5. A spiral of depression, substance abuse, attempted suicide
6. Used by boys when she is most vulnerable
7. Receives no help, no sympathy.
9. Kills herself.
10. Media witch hunt to uncover name of harasser and ethical debate
11. The complete lack of empathy of her peers.
I am not going to talk about internet safety and the common mistakes Ms. Todd made. Yes, she engaged in some unsafe behaviour on the internet. Yes, she gave away too much of her personal information. Yes, it is a harsh world out there with true villains and yes, the internet makes them even more powerful (the same could be said about everything and the internet though, eben the good things like activism and collaboration).
Yes, it is important to talk to our children about these issues. To talk to them about where their information goes and who can use it and about the concept of privacy. But this is the easiest issue to confront in this situation. The problem is that usually the conversation ends there. Throw out a few horror stories meant to scare them into never going online (which isn’t going to happen, BTW) and voilà! We think we are done educating our children about online behaviour.
Not so. If anything, the Amanda Todd case shows us that there are underlying societal trends that existed long before the internet became ubiquitious; social media has simply exacerbated them.
Here are the three aspects of this case that disturb me the most, that make me afraid for my daughters.
This is a term Fazeela Jiwa used in her excellent opinion piece, “Bullying” is too Vague when we are dealing with Sexism and Mysogyny. She is talking specifically about how Todd’s friends began to shun her the moment the fake facebook appeared:
Internalized misogyny is an important aspect of the structural violence associated with patriarchy: the young women in Todd’s life turned against her rather than supporting her through harassment, despite surely facing similar pressures to capitulate to male definitions of, and demands on, female sexuality. Thanks in part to the media frenzy surrounding the controversial SlutWalk, the conversation about woman-blaming is active; women around the world have rallied with the message that we are not to be held responsible for sexist violence against us.
A couple of clichéd expressions (with unfortunate religious tones) come to mind:
There but for the grace of god, go I.
And this lovely, old testament nugget:
Let the on without sin cast the first stone.
Amanda Todd’s worth was completely wrapped up in her physical appearance from as early as Grade seven, when she began to go online and chat with strangers. She was told she was gorgeous, and beautiful and they would love her to flash. It is easy to see how she could interpret that as meaning if I want people to like me I must flash my boobs. She was 12/13 at the time, after all.
Her friends were there with her in these chat rooms. They had the same pressure. They might have done the same thing and not come across the truly psycho creep that ended up getting a hold of Amanda’s photo.
And yet they think it’s okay to judge her for it? nWould things have culminated in her suicide if her friends had stuck by her? If they had taken a untied front?
I don’t think so.
Just Plain old Mysogyny
The notion that this generation of males, with the easy access to porn and the aggressive objectification of women in the media, are subject to some unrealistic expectations and beliefs when it comes to women and women’s sexuality came to my attention with the movie Miss Representation.
Listening to the roles teen boys played in Amanda’s life was especially galling. If she wasn’t being stalked by mysogynistic, child-predator psychopaths, she was being led down the garden path by a boy her age who led her on for sex and then abandoned her. hearing the excuse she made for him was especially appalling.
I recently stayed with a friend who has two teenage boys. She was driving them and their friends home one night when she heard one say, “That so and so girl. I heard she’s easy.” My friend stopped the car, made all the boys get out and sit in the ditch by the road, and grilled them about what they actually knew about the girl. She would not let them get back into the car until they all acknowledged how hurtful a rumour like that could be and how they should be ashamed to perpetrate it.
Good on her, I say, but what can we do to prevent the need for that conversation?
Which brings me to the thing that bothers me the most, the umbrella issue in the Amanda Todd case:
Lack of Empathy
Where the hell is the empathy? Where is it hiding? Did it leak through the thin layers of our ozone layer? Did it get lost in cyberspace?
Like most people, I was appalled by some of the comments people made on her facebook before her death and after. You can watch the video or read the articles about it, but I am not going to dignify them with space on this blog.
Now that may be just the comments of a few bad seeds, but then I hear a radio documentary on the show A Story from Here the other day on CBC where a journalist interviewed teenagers from different parts of the country. They had absolutely no sympathy for Amanda Todd. One said that he didn’t know why such a fuss was being made for a white, middle class teen girl whose life wasn’t that hard anyway. The other mentioned how is father had just committed suicide and still he didn’t feel anything for Amanda Todd. Another said how he just got out of the hospital for suicidal thoughts and still couldn’t find it in his heart to feel bad for what happened to Amanda. They were unified in thinking that having a strategy against bullying was stupid and pointless and that there was nothing anybody could do about bullying. That it was something you just had to live through and that it makes you stronger.
There was no putting themselves in her shoes even if their experience was so similar to hers. There was not an inkling of sympathy for her story.
This worries me. This worries me a great deal.
I wrote a post about a year ago about how our role as parents is still to guide our children on their journey to being compassionate, considerate citizens of the world, whether they be online or offline. This means talking to them about the more nuanced and insidious trends some of which I outlined above.
Though they might not get it right away, it is important to keep the conversation going.
Last night my husband and I showed the Amanda Todd’s video to our girls. I hesitated to do so, as her story is really the worst-case scenario of what can happen to our child online, up there with abduction and rape. Most of the time, their online interactions will be positive, as demonstrated by Amanda Lenhart from the PEW Research Center. She gave a great interview on Spark a few months ago that is worth listening to. But as I began thinking about it, I really wanted to address the above issues with my girls. Especially since my oldest is going on 14 and is starting to go to dances. She will be dealing with boys soon and I want her to have a framework of behaviour already in place, one that is not dictated by the libido of teenage boys. I want my daughters to know they don’t have to play by the rules of a gender game played on very lopsided playing field that Amanda Todd stumbled into unwittingly and obviously lost. They only apply if you let them.
Of course, that is what I want. I am not naive. They are young and have to figure out their own sexuality as well as navigate the warped, contradictory messages they receive.
Yes, they will make mistakes.
My fervent hope, and one that I continue to repeat to them, is that when they do, they will know that we will be there to catch them. Without judgment and without question.
Okay. Maybe a little questioning….