Monica Lewinsky’s TED Talk – Cyberbullying, Online Harassment and the Culture of Shame

I just watched one of the most amazing TED Talks I’ve ever seen, and it was given by Monica Lewinsky. Yes, that woman.

I confess I hadn’t given her much thought since the end of Bill Clinton’s presidency. I remember reading about the blue dress, see the pictures of her in that beret, and reading many of the all too numerous and salacious stories about her affair with the President. I remember watching the news shows where she was labeled a bimbo, a temptress, a victim, a home-wrecker, a [insert the derogatory word of your choice here]. I frankly can’t recall what I thought of her back then, but I’m sure it wasn’t flattering, even though even I did not listen to the tapes of her phone conversations posted online, which many did. If I thought of her at all since then, it was as a less than fully human figurine – as a one dimensional stereotype, the caricature that the media, online and offline, constructed out of this one brief moment in her life’s story.

I should have thought better of her, though. I should have remembered my own younger self, and my own numerous mistakes at that age. I should have shown a little compassion. But I didn’t think to do so. Shame on me.

Oddly enough, compassion is at the heart of Monica Lewinsky’s TED talk which is titled “The Price of Shame.” I just finished watching it. I couldn’t take my eyes off the screen as she recounted her experiences of public humiliation at the dawn of the internet age, and how it drove her to thoughts of suicide. These thoughts she expressed to her parents made them afraid to let her out of their sight during the worst of her ordeal. But the TED talk she gave is not merely about her past, it is about our online present and the wave of cyber-bullying and public online shaming that afflicts so many in our present day. What she had to say on that topic resonated deeply with me. Please watch it:

If you finished watching her talk, you’ll notice she didn’t speak only about herself. What she focused on, using her own experience as a prime example, was the manner in which the internet has coarsened our society. Every day, the worst angels of our nature are on display online in the constant flood of nastiness, name-calling, and general dehumanization and degradation of others. People – children – are targeted on social media with consequences that have led to a rash of suicides and suicidal impulses among those being bullied. The most vulnerable are often the ones hurt the most – women, minorities, and LGBTQ people.

I know from seeing the personal experiences of my children’s friends and from hearing their stories that it was bad, but I had no idea of the extent of this epidemic. Among a survey of 10,000 youth in the UK conducted in 2013 by by Ditch the Label I found the following revelations – or at least they were revelations to me:

Roughly 70% of the respondents had been bullied online.

Thirty-seven percent were bullied on a frequent basis.

In the US of A, the statistics are just as frightening.

Every 7 MINUTES a child is bullied. Adult intervention – 4%. Peer intervention – 11%. No intervention – 85%.

Bullied students tend to grow up more socially anxious, with less self-esteem and require more mental health services throughout life.

1 MILLION children were harassed, threatened or subjected to other forms of cyberbullying on FACEBOOK during the past year.

88% of social media-using teens say they have seen someone be mean or cruel to another person on a social network site. 12% of these say they witness this kind of behavior “frequently.”

Of course, harassment and bullying and cruelty online are hardly limited to our young people. Adults partake of this activity all the damn time. Some examples of things that didn’t exist in my twenties and thirties, but are all too prevalent now:

Revenge porn

Cyber-stalking

Online harassment

We have the technology and we are using it badly. Every day, someone receives a threat online, is bullied online, has their personal information exposed online, is shamed and humiliated online. Every day people experience the emotions of fear, anger, frustration, terror because of actions taken by other people – online. Every day someone thinks about killing themselves, and many eventually follow through on those thoughts and commit suicide, because of what was revealed about them publicly online and what was said about them online and what was done to them – online.

It is easy, I imagine, for many reading this to think that this is all overblown hyperbole. That these kids and adults should toughen up, get thicker skin, grow a pair. The whole “words can never hurt me” mantra. To anyone who believes that, however, I say you could not be more wrong. Words lead to actions, and actions with real world consequences all too often. And the sheer scope and extent of the online experience can overload the minds of vulnerable people in ways that simply did not occur in the past. Bullying can now occur around the clock, 24/7.

When I was bullied in my youth, I always knew that I could escape the bullying after I was alone at home. I always knew that there were a limited number of people who witnessed my humiliation. That is not the case anymore. We live in a connected world. We are immersed in it. Even when we are offline, others – friends, family, strangers – can be reading negative things posted about us, and when we return we find that the nightmare is 1000 times worse than we could have ever imagined.

Monica relates the tragic story of Tyler Clementi, a freshman at Rutgers whose roommate secretly used a webcam to make a video of Tyler having sex with another man. When that video was released online the result was as predictable as it was tragic and completely unnecessary.

The roommate viewed him in an intimate act, and invited others to view this online. Tyler discovered what his abuser had done and that he was planning a second attempt. Viewing his roommate’s Twitter feed, Tyler learned he had widely become a topic of ridicule in his new social environment. He ended his life several days later by jumping off the George Washington Bridge. Tyler was eighteen years old.

Monica in her talk specifically recalls for her audience speaking to her mother at the time that Tyler’s death garnered national attention. For those of you who did not watch the video, here is what she said:

My mom was beside herself about what happened to Tyler and his family, and she was gutted with pain in a way that I just couldn’t quite understand, and then eventually I realized she was reliving 1998, reliving a time when she sat by my bed every night, reliving a time when she made me shower with the bathroom door open, and reliving a time when both of my parents feared that I would be humiliated to death, literally.

Today, too many parents haven’t had the chance to step in and rescue their loved ones. Too many have learned of their child’s suffering and humiliation after it was too late. Tyler’s tragic, senseless death was a turning point for me. It served to recontextualize my experiences, and I then began to look at the world of humiliation and bullying around me and see something different. In 1998, we had no way of knowing where this brave new technology called the Internet would take us. Since then, it has connected people in unimaginable ways, joining lost siblings, saving lives, launching revolutions, but the darkness, cyberbullying, and slut-shaming that I experienced had mushroomed. Every day online, people, especially young people who are not developmentally equipped to handle this, are so abused and humiliated that they can’t imagine living to the next day, and some, tragically, don’t, and there’s nothing virtual about that. ChildLine, a U.K. nonprofit that’s focused on helping young people on various issues, released a staggering statistic late last year: From 2012 to 2013, there was an 87 percent increase in calls and emails related to cyberbullying. A meta-analysis done out of the Netherlands showed that for the first time, cyberbullying was leading to suicidal ideations more significantly than offline bullying. And you know what shocked me, although it shouldn’t have, was other research last year that determined humiliation was a more intensely felt emotion than either happiness or even anger.

So what is the answer to this horrible situation of our own creation? It’s not that difficult to do, or at least it shouldn’t be. Show empathy and compassion to those who are the subject of harassment. Don’t respond to cruelty shown to you with more cruelty. Do you remember this Daily Kos diary posted not so long ago, about a young African American woman who chose to respond to online hate with compassion? I do.

Most importantly, stand up to those who you see being harassed and bullied. Let them know that not everyone hates them or wants to shame them or humiliate them. As Monica stated, it doesn’t take much to make a big difference.

Shame cannot survive empathy. I’ve seen some very dark days in my life, and it was the compassion and empathy from my family, friends, professionals, and sometimes even strangers that saved me. Even empathy from one person can make a difference. The theory of minority influence, proposed by social psychologist Serge Moscovici, says that even in small numbers, when there’s consistency over time, change can happen. In the online world, we can foster minority influence by becoming upstanders. To become an upstander means instead of bystander apathy, we can post a positive comment for someone or report a bullying situation. Trust me, compassionate comments help abate the negativity.

How much pain and suffering can we alleviate by simply standing up for those who are being abused? By showing empathy for those who are the subject of online bullying or harassment? By changing how we choose to interact with others on the internet? I don’t know, but a damn sight more than refusing to change, refusing to help, refusing to show simple compassion for the suffering of others, even others who show hate or anger toward us.

I know, what a radical leftist idea. A fool’s errand, some might say. Something that will never happen in a million years. You can’t change human nature, the world, etc, etc., etc.

Well, we won’t if we don’t try, now, will we?.

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