Yesterday, Tony Orsini, my son’s middle school principal sent a blunt letter to all parents telling us that we should ban social networks for our middle school children. I was unsure whether it was acceptable for me to print the latter when I got it, but our New York CBS TV station had a headline today, "NJ Principal Asks Parents To Ban Social Networking" in which it prints the whole letter. You should read it for yourself. I respect Tony, but he’s wrong on this one.
Before I comment on the letter, I want to tell you a little bit about its author, Tony Orsini. I can’t say that I know him very well, but all four of my kids attended his Ridgewood New Jersey middle school and he is a good principal. He is passionate about what’s right for his students, and I guarantee you that every word in his letter is built on what he believes is right.
I just think he is misguided on this one. And it is very understandable how that happens, because it happens to all of us when faced with new technology. Because the technology is the thing being injected into our otherwise settled equation, it feels right that the technology is the problem, when we are our own worst enemies. It’s not the technology. It’s us.
Think about it. Tony points out that Facebook and other social networks have become the newest venues for bullying, which is an incredibly serious problem. But the issue isn’t where the bullying is happening. The issue is the bullying. Let me make this point with a personal story.
Even though I am older in dirt, I was in sixth grade once myself. My family had moved from another state and I was "the new kid." I was short and scrawny–a patsy. I was the easiest victim they’d ever seen, so the other boys in my grade bullied me for well over a year at every recess every school day.
One day, in seventh grade, I decided that I wasn’t going to subject myself to it anymore, so when everyone else went to play at recess, I just plopped myself down away from the other kids and did not move from there. A teacher who had apparently never noticed the bullying going one for months noticed me today and asked me what was wrong, so I told her. At that point, the school cracked down on the kids and my life got better.
Schools have changed a lot since I was 12. They now take bullying extremely seriously and no kid would go through what I did, because the kids are told that the adults care about this problem and that they can be approached. I never knew that anyone would care if I told them and the bullies had made it clear that that wasn’t my best strategy. So, I wasn’t intending to tell someone about my problem when I removed myself physically from the bullying. I had taken Tony’s solution. Instead of addressing the problem, I canceled my own recess.
So, I understand where Tony is coming from. If they are bullying you at recess, cancel recess. If they are bullying you in Facebook, cancel Facebook. But that was my solution as a 12-year-old. Fortunately, the adults, the teachers and other educators, have spent the last 40 years figuring out how to stop bullying without canceling recess. And as far as I can tell, it has been highly effective. The teachers try to monitor bullying behavior more than they once did, yes, but the main thing they do is to empower the victims of bullying by telling them what to do when it happens. And they also drill into kids from an early age that bullying is unacceptable. And it works. Without canceling recess.
The truth is that although Facebook seems like this brave new world to us oldsters (and in some ways it is), it doesn’t repeal the laws of human behavior. The problem is not bullying on Facebook. The problem is bullying. 40 years ago, many teachers said things like "boys will be boys" over this problem because they felt helpless about what they could do to stop it. It is understandable that we might feel a bit helpless about cyber-bullying now, but canceling Facebook is not the solution.
Instead, we must accept that bullying is unacceptable no matter where it happens. And we must accept that in the real world or the cyberworld, adults can’t always monitor what kids do. And we must accept that this technology will be used no matter what we want. At what age is Facebook OK? How do children learn how to act appropriately online? We must step up to teach them and we must emphasize that they are accountable for what they do online as well as everywhere else. And we must emphasize that we care what happens to them online, just as we do everywhere else. Canceling Facebook is just drawing a line that cannot hold.
Having said that, i have no issue with parents who want to follow Tony’s advice. That might be the right approach for your kid. But it can’t be right for every kid. There are plenty of mature eighth graders that can handle Facebook, just as there are probably some ninth graders that can’t. Each parent can make that decision based on their own kid. If Tony’s letter helps parents reclaim their confidence to make that decision, good. But if his letter just scares everyone into thinking that putting our heads in the sand will keep the cyber-bullies away, that would be a shame.
It’s easy to demonize Facebook for cyber-bullying. It’s harder to address the problem of student behavior, whether it happens online or off. But just as 40 years ago we ignored the problem offline, we have learned enough to know that we must confront bullying wherever it happens. On Facebook, too.
Thanks for raising the issue, Tony. I know it comes from a good heart. I just think we need to take a different approach.