Last weekend at edcamp philly, a wonderful unconference in Philadelphia, I went to a session that was led by Aaron Eyler. Aaron was talking about engaging students in tackling the problems of the world. It was a fascinating conversation, but at the end, he made a comment that stopped me in my tracks. He said that one significant problem for students today is that they are very poor at dealing with personal conflict. They live in a world where if they are angry with someone or their feelings have been hurt, all they need to do is unfriend that person. They do not live in a world that forces them to have face-to-face conflict resolution. They can send the message and walk away from the relationship.
We are constantly hearing about bullying in schools these days. Aaron’s comment made me wonder if some of what is going on might be connected to a desire to be friends with everyone, a desire that we all have. Facebook and social media lets you feel like you are friends with hundreds. You can build up your Friend list far beyond the number of people that you actually know and share friendship with, as many middle school students have. They get to feel connected with lots of people, far more than they ever talk to in a day at school. These lists give them a sense of significance and validation, but it is one that is not based on the real give and take of a relationship. It is simply based on a click of a button to accept a Friend Request. But that click and many others provide a sense of connection and worth.
Then, when someone in school, someone who is your Facebook Friend, is unkind to you, or Unfriends you after an argument, the power is amplified. It becomes more than what has gone on on playyards for generations. Kids have always argued and said unkind things to each other, but rather than being forced, often by an adult, to wrestle with the problem and learn strategies to manage conflict, that tension can now go underground. It leaves the realm where an adult is monitoring and supervising and goes to a Lord of the Flies world. Power is in the hands of the student with the most power and social influence. A student can strike back without having to look in the eyes of their classmate. It is no longer necessary to watch the pain as you cause it. The person you want to harm is no longer present, and the power of past friendship that can heal hurts is muted. Social networks have given an amazing amount of power into the hands of children whose impulses are quick.
How do we help students to learn empathy in this environment? I am not convinced that there are more active bullies in classrooms and schools than there ever were, but students may now have tools that turn what used to be normal adolescent behavior into a new form of harassment.
I wish that I believed that there was a quick solution to this, but I don’t. I do believe, though, that as educators, we need to be aware of the dangers of these tools that we encourage students to use. The ability to Unfriend is a powerful weapon in the hands of an upset middle school student. How can we empower students and also teach them to use their power with respect for others?