Too Easy to Unfriend

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?

4 responses to “Too Easy to Unfriend

  1. Thanks for this thoughtful post. I think the education of parents is also a must in this area. I am not sure they understand the way that the social scene has changed for their children. In fact, I am sure that most don’t because even those of us who work with adolescents on a daily basis and feel that we are somewhat in the loop are gaining new insights frequently into the way social media impacts our students.

    I agree with you wholeheartedly on the fact that bullying is not more active. Unfortunately, there is a new way for students to bully through social media. Bullying is now a 24-7 option for those who choose to pursue that avenue. But in my opinion, there is no bully without an audience. I think we need to teach students to show empathy, but am I wrong in saying that we should teach kids to unfriend the bullies and take away their power?

    • Giving tools to kids that work 24/7 is critical. I think that as educators we need to understand more about the culture of Facebook as the kids experience it. I am not convinced that I understand its power or potential for middle school students, but we need to figure out how to empower and protect them there. Unfriending the bullies might well be a place to start, especially if groups of kids could do it together.

  2. This is an excellent post, and something I have been thinking for a long time. In fact, this problem has become one of the reasons I cite to continue teaching arts in the schools. You cannot make music or put on a play with people unless you must interact with them. In the process, you hang yourself out there together, and all must find ways to appreciate the work and abilities of the others, even when we don’t agree with them on something else in life. We wrestle through issues together, and create something bigger than ourselves.

    You don’t have to do that in math class!

    We have got to find ways for everyone to engage in face-to-face human interaction.

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