Cyber bullying takes many forms. There’s a new type of cyber bullying that is that is quickly becoming more prevalent in our society’s young adult culture, but it’s catching on in other age groups, too. It’s called shaming, specifically internet shaming.
Definition of shame
People can be made to feel ashamed when they believe they have done something wrong, something they regret. We’ve all been there. We have said or done things we wish we could take back and undo. Bullies take advantage of people who are in this guilty state by bringing these actions into the public eye. According to the American Heritage Dictionary, shame is “a painful emotion caused by a strong sense of guilt, embarrassment, unworthiness, or disgrace.” Shaming people makes them feel condemned and disgraced, especially when it is done publically.
A particularly disturbing trend among teens is what they have termed “slut shaming.” National Public Radio recently produced a story on this trend, calling it “the new scarlet letter.”
If you are not familiar with “The Scarlet Letter,” it is the title of a novel written by Nathaniel Hawthorne about a woman named Hester Prynne, who lived in Puritan Boston during the 1600s. Prynne was found guilty of adultery. In the Puritan culture of that time, public shaming of the woman was the way they handled this transgression. Prynne was shamed by all of Boston by being forced to wear a scarlet letter -“A” for adulteress – pinned to her lapel. She had to spend several hours a day in the town square wearing the scarlet letter where all could see her and learn from her “shameful” example. So, as you see by this story, shaming is nothing new, but it is disturbing to find that it is, once again, rearing its ugly head in our culture through social media.
The “slut shaming” incidents in the NPR story involved both girls and boys who posted videos and photos of other girls while they are having sex or in compromising positions. In some instances, catty, judgmental girls posted pictures of other girls who are more promiscuous to shame them for their actions. In another instance, a boy secretly took a picture of a girl who was scantily clad lying on a bed. He took the picture with his phone while he was with her, and she wasn’t aware she was being photographed. He posted the picture on Facebook to shame her, but it was his way of bragging about his conquest at the same time. One of the teens interviewed for the story said the boy who posted the photo bragged about getting 2,000 friend requests because of the picture. The girl was, literally, shamed.
In another instance, a boy had sex with a girl, secretly recorded her during the act, and posted the video on Facebook. This video forced school officials to take on a new role – and an unwelcome one, at that. Because a sexually-explicit film of their students had been secretly recorded and made public, they had to call in authorities to deal with the matter. The story didn’t say if the boy was punished with consequences for his actions since he is a juvenile. But it did mention the concerns of one of the teens interviewed that these pictures and videos could come back to haunt these girls in the future.
The Destruction Caused by Shaming
An article on “wired.com” told a story about a woman who was sitting in front of two men at a tech conference when they made some explicit puns that caused her discomfort. She tweeted a photo of them along with their comments with the caption, “Not cool.” The tweet spread like wildfire across the Internet and also got press coverage in the Washington Post and on MSNBC. In the end, the shaming tweet resulted in two of the three people losing their jobs – one of the men who made the comments, and the woman who tweeted the picture. The man lost his job first, which resulted in a huge backlash and verbal abuse toward the woman for “causing” him to lose his job.
The title of the wired.com article is “Why You Should Think Twice Before Shaming Anyone on Social Media.” It asks significant questions, such as who is to blame for the destruction – the person who behaves badly or the person who reveals the bad behavior. Another culprit could be the hordes of re-tweeters who fan the flames and cause these incidents to blow up out of all proportion.
The article also points out that social media itself could also be considered a culprit in the shaming trend. “At its best, social media has given a voice to the disenfranchised, allowing them to bypass the gatekeepers of power and publicize injustices that might otherwise remain invisible. At its worst, it’s a weapon of mass reputation destruction, capable of amplifying slander, bullying, and casual idiocy on a scale never before possible.”
Even if you believe you are calling someone out who deserves to be outed, such as someone engaging in blatant hate speech, you need to be careful that anything you post doesn’t cross the line into cyber bullying, making you as bad as your target. Social media posts can become magnified creating unexpected results, both good and bad. These posts can cause untold damage to both the poster and the target, not to mention the fact they are out there for years and can surface when you least expect them – or want them to. Once something is posted, it’s online for good and, even if you change your mind later, you can’t do anything about it.
Even worse are parents who use social media to shame their children, leaving a permanent record of emotional abuse that may never heal.
Some parents have used methods of public shaming other than social media to shame their children, but pictures of their methods have ended up on social media, spreading the children’s shame and public humiliation even further. One parent hung a sign on his son’s neck that said, “I am a bully. Honk if you hate bullies.” He made the boy stand on the sidewalk in full view of city traffic. The father received some criticism for using public shaming to teach his son not to bully, but one person stopped to congratulate him on taking responsibility for his son and taking action.
Other parents have made their children wear similar signs for stealing, for twerking at a school dance, for behaving like a class clown in school and for refusing to take a school test, in addition to bullying. Child psychologists say shaming children publicly like this is the same as bullying these children. They contend it is doing more damage than it is helping them learn not to bully others. Parents should be their children’s allies, not their adversaries, they say. In addition, people in the communities who saw these examples public shaming took pictures with their phones and posted them on social media, compounding the children’s shame,. They have also created a permanent public record that is out there online indefinitely.
Was it a good idea that these parents used a bullying tactic to attempt to teach their children not to bully? Will the lesson “taught” this way be effective? Since one of the children had bullied someone before the father made him wear the sign, could he have learned how to be a bully from his home life in the first place? These are questions we don’t know the answers to, but they are worth thinking about.
Bullying and shaming are nothing new. A clinical psychologist pointed out that even children’s fairy tales have examples of both – Cinderella, The Ugly Duckling and Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer! These same types of shaming and bullying happen to our kids all the time in schools, on the playground and in sports. The bullying doesn’t always stop when we grow up, either. It can continue in the workplace and social settings. Often children and adults need the help of professionals to break out of the cycle psychologically and to repair its damage.