Adults, if you want teenagers to be civil online, first fix your own behaviour

Wed, Sep 26, 2012, 01:00

ONE DAY last month, 15-year-old Ciara Pugsley logged on to the Ask.fmsite.

The site allows users to ask and reply to questions from other users, either anonymously or through their Facebook or Twitter accounts. “If you could play any musical instrument, what would it be?” someone asked her.

“Guitar, i always wanna be able to play it, maybe someday :L :),” she replied.

Tragically, that opportunity never came. A week ago, she was found dead in a wooded area near her home in Killargue, Co Leitrim.

At her funeral mass last weekend, a family friend spoke about how the girl, described by her school as “a valued and popular member of our community and a talented sportsperson”, had been “driven” to suicide by “internet bullying”.

Eugene O’Brien spoke about how Ciara had done a lifesaving course and said that she “valued life and wanted to be a saver of lives”.

“Ciara did not want to die. She enjoyed living and had so much more living to do. She was driven to it. I appeal to those involved in this dreadful activity to see the devastating consequences of their malicious comments here today,” he said.

When someone, especially a child, ends their life by suicide, those of us on the outside are eager for answers. The media, in particular, clutches at narratives that can sometimes belie the complexity of human sadness, or the enormity of a family’s loss.

I don’t want to do that. Even after the Garda investigation has concluded and the coroner’s report is published, we will never fully understand why Ciara Pugsley, who had so much to live for, died.

But this much is true: whatever else was going on in her life, she had been the victim of particularly cruel anonymous online commentary in the two months before her death. On the same day that she talked about her wish to learn the guitar, for instance, she was subjected to a series of vitriolic remarks that accused her, among other things, of being “a fake”, “ugly”, a “slut”, and “a sad dramatic wee child”.

“Theres people actually suffering and you just dont understand that everyone knows your a fake and that you do it for attention ! so please get a life you sad sad pathetic little girl !” one of the few printable comments read.

It’s tempting, as some parents in Leitrim did last week, to suggest banning phones as a response to this, or even curtailing teenagers’ use of the internet, but it’s hardly practicable. It’s not enough to wish that Facebook had never happened, or to stop children using Ask.fm.

Instead, children and teenagers need to be taught how to interact online, just as we teach them, when they first learn to communicate, how to behave with one another socially.

“Parents do need to upskill themselves and to understand that the digital world is where young people’s lives are mostly played out. We need to remind them of that notion of a conversation can change a life – for better or for worse,” says Dr Gillian O’Brien of the youth mental health organisation Headstrong.

But there’s a problem with that. It’s difficult to expect teenagers to moderate how they interact with each other online, when so many of their parents don’t seem to be moderating their own behaviour.

If you want to see grown-up vitriol in action, then look at the tweets directed at any public figure – much of it by the same adults who would, no doubt, be charging down to school to complain if anyone spoke to their child that way.

Or you could venture down to the comments section of an article where someone is strongly expressing a point of view others are likely to disagree with.

A robust online debate among public commentators or politicians is far less harmful than one involving a vulnerable teenager, but there’s a similar psychology at work.

According to O’Brien, the reason that online discourse can be so harsh is that people posting anonymously on websites go through a process of “deindividuation”, which is similar to what happens when you get behind the wheel of a car, or find yourself caught up in the madness of a crowd.

“It really lessens your self-awareness, it lifts inhibitions, and that face-to-face aspect of the interaction is removed, so people aren’t empathising with each other,” she says.

Nowhere is this phenomenon more depressingly manifest than in the relatively new phenomenon of “creepshots” – candid photographs of attractive women taken without their permission and then posted on sites such as Reddit.

These aren’t anybody’s mother, daughter, sister or girlfriend – they’re just a “nice ass in a formal skirt”, who has no idea the man standing behind her in the post-office queue is taking her picture.

When social networking came along, we seized on it as a way of showcasing our individuality. But in doing so, we seem to have lost some of what makes us human.

Unlike some of her online tormentors, Ciara Pugsley used her real name. On Ask.fmshe responded politely. She didn’t abuse anyone. In every way, she was a model of how to interact reasonably on the web.

If the abuse directed at her stung, she gave no clue. And if there’s any lesson to be drawn from her death, maybe that’s it. When you’re hiding behind an avatar, it’s difficult to see the damage your words can do.

Someone on Ask.fmwanted to know what Ciara’s favourite song was. She chose Breathe by Taylor Swift, whose lyrics include a line that, in the context of her death, has tragic resonance: “None of us thought it was going to end this way.”

Unlike her online tormentors, Ciara Pugsley was a model of how to interact reasonably on the web

Got a nu fon. Gues hu I'm hre with?

IT’S HARD not to have a sneaking sympathy for Enda Kenny. Who hasn’t found themselves bored at Mass, itching to sneak a peek at their phone? Video footage posted online by the Italian Corriere della Sera website shows the Taoiseach fiddling with his beloved new iPhone throughout his audience with Pope Benedict XVI in Castel Gandolfo last week.

The Taoiseach, who was sitting in the front row and in full view of the cameras, was so busy updating his Facebook or playing Angry Birds – or, okay, running the country – that he failed to notice when the speech on abortion and marriage finished, and he wasn’t able to put the phone away in time to clap along with the other dignitaries.

The deputy editor of the Irish Catholic newspaper is not amused. Michael Kelly took to Twitter to denounce the Taoiseach’s behaviour as “rude”.

“It’s about basic manners . . . and unfortunately Mr Kenny was again found wanting,” he said, though he later admitted that he doubted “whether the Pope even noticed”.

In a sign of how technology may be our new religion, most of the other comments on Twitter were far more excited by the revelation that the Taoiseach has upgraded to an iPhone from his trusty Nokia 6310i.

Two events that should shock us into rescuing our sense of community

TWO REPORTS this week reflected the new reality of life for Ireland’s older people. First, there was the horrifying death of 67-year-old Eugene Gillespie, who was attacked in his home, where he lived alone. He was bound to a chair and apparently left for dead, during an aggravated burglary. He died on Saturday night in hospital.

Then there were new figures compiled from CSO data by the All-Island Research Observatory (Airo), which reveal that one in three elderly people are living alone in parts of the country.

Isolation doesn’t always equal vulnerability, of course. It doesn’t necessarily equate to loneliness, either – plenty of people of all ages live alone, and are perfectly happy that way. But we are in danger of losing something irreplaceable with the diminishing sense of community in Irish towns.

Quite apart from the risk of crime to older people living alone, some studies have shown that being part of a vibrant community is a key to longevity. In fact, one report by researchers at the Brigham Young University in Utah concluded that low social interaction is as harmful to health as smoking and alcoholism.

@jenoconnell

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