My sophomore year of high school there was a rumor going around that I was a gay drug dealer. I found out when a 9th grader from my English class took it upon himself to break the news to my girlfriend. It was 1998, well before Facebook, and rumors were still communicated face to zit-covered-face. I told her, “It’s the price you pay for dating a guy with plaid pants and a Mohawk in the suburbs.”
Word about a new gay drug dealer got back to a real drug dealer in my school named Greg Duncan. Greg was an overweight sophomore who looked like a member of the insane clown posse without the make-up. And he didn’t like the idea of sharing drug sales with a homosexual, or anyone for that matter. So one snowy afternoon Greg stood up in the cafeteria and yelled. “Hey Roberts, You’re a FAGGOT!” Pounding his fist into what I assumed was my imaginary face. The lunchroom froze as everyone silently scanned the room trying to find the “Roberts” in question.
I’d had enough. I stood up, straightened my Mohawk and pointed at Greg. “Why don’t you come over here and make out with me?” Then I pulled my girlfriend to her feet and kissed her as the cafeteria erupted in cheers.
And that was the end of it. The rumor died in the cafeteria that day. But it’s not like that anymore.
As a youth minister I meet with kids whose lives are being ripped apart by bullying on Facebook. Instead of rumors floating around school, kids today have to contend with cruel Facebook posts with hundreds of likes and a list of comments from classmates. These comments never go away. In 1998 I could face Greg Duncan in the cafeteria and put an end to it. Today my current congregants can’t Google teenage pictures of me with a photo-shopped bong in my mouth. But how do you stop a picture of a teenage girl with the words “Slut” written in white block letters, that’s been shared 100 times and has 1,000 “likes”.
Teenagers today are going to have to continue to live with, not just memories of high school bullies, but the online record, which the whole world can see. Forever. This cyber bullying is resulting in a rise in teen depression and suicides. Teenagers today are being crushed by the thought of everyone seeing their face with the word “slut” floating above it, knowing that even their Grandma could find it. They have to agonize over how they will explain that pictures to their future husband or their kids.
The Pew Research Group recently reported: “Focus group discussions with teens show that they have waning enthusiasm for Facebook, disliking the increasing adult presence, people sharing excessively, and stressful “drama,” but they keep using it because participation is an important part of overall teenage socializing.”
There are no easy solutions to the problem. A lot of teenage socializing happens on Facebook. In our local middle school real life fights have spontaneously broken out over something posted on Facebook. It’s difficult to protect our youth, even if they are not on Facebook, their picture will be uploaded and comments will be posted.
Maybe someone will develop some amazing “forgiveness technology” that rids the internet of hurtful images, or maybe Facebook will start taking some responsibility for the cyber bullying that happens on their site.
But until then we need to support our youth. Checking up on their online reputation and asking them about what’s going on. We need to be aware of what’s happening in the online life of our youth.
Growing up has always been hard because there have always been idiots like Greg Duncan, but the youth of today have to live in the lingering shadow of hurtful comments for the rest of their lives. The pain from cyber bullying is real and it’s getting harder and harder to forget. In the Facebook era, rumors never die.