I recently wrote an op-ed for the Toronto Star about using gratitude as a wellbeing strategy in schools this year – it was completely torn apart on Twitter, as was I. Insults included having Covid wished upon my entire family, assumptions that I must be a ‘blond yoga instructor married to a political leader,’ and someone telling me to simply f@#k off. Poetic. Sadly, the trolling of writers is extremely common, especially for women.
This gratitude piece (a topic also covered by the New York Times and the Washington Post during the pandemic) quickly became analyzed through a political lens; the result was dark, because the political climate surrounding education is dark right now. Ironic, really – the article was meant to offer a well-researched tool for reprieve from the utter chaos surrounding us as we head into a new school year. Escapism? No. Political docility? Absolutely not. An offering of a wellbeing strategy to divert negative thoughts 24/7? Yes!
I have had some great debates in the past, but the majority of these nasty comments didn’t call for response, and no one used their real names anyways. I reflected on a handful of comments about privledge that were thoughtful and I wish I could have engaged to say I would do better, but that move didn’t feel safe. I also got a ton of support from educators I respect – thank you.
As an educator, perhaps my most meaningful takeaway was thinking of ways I might utilize this personal experience to instruct young people on social media literacy and online resiliency. Anonymous online hate was not something I experienced growing up in the time that I did, but after this firsthand experience, I can confirm – it is brutal. I couldn’t help but ruminate on how many of the teenagers we know experience these kinds of debilitating comments in any given day? What if this relatively mild opinion piece had been written by a teenager? What if the content were more hard hitting or reflected a piece of a young person’s identity that was considered outside of societal norms? Would it end as mundanely as it had for me, with a bad week, a cocktail (or 3), and a deactivated Twitter account? The answer is no.
7/10 young people experience online trolling or cyberbullying by the time they turn 18, and the rates are astronomical for LGTBQ+ kids. This abuse is widespread and has devastating effects on teenagers; one-third of young people who are trolled online report symptoms of depression. Young people are impressionable and their sense of self is still forming, so experiences like this can be downright dangerous for their mental health. I am reminded of how imperative it is to educate our young people about online hate, how to avoid it, and to definitely not take part in it themselves – a future employer or university could find out, plus, it’s just cruel and won’t make them feel any happier.
Teenagers follow our accounts and see what we post online, they learn how to behave based on the ways they see us interact. Perhaps others didn’t connect with this content, but some of our kids were reading those comments, and this is another reason I chose not to engage. The world is a scary and unpredictable place right now and the last thing any of our kids need is more controversy and hate; they are trying to survive their 3rd year of pandemic school, and it’s not easy to find the joy in that – I’ll keep supporting them as they try to, though.
Finally, here comes the gratitude – I have never been more inspired to continue, what I now know in my guts, is the imperative work of social media literacy and online resiliency skills with our young people this school year. I also won’t stop writing about it.
Here is a useful guide from MediaSmarts on helping our kids navigate cyberbullying.
I hope you all have a restful labour day weekend. Good luck with the school start up!