Phones Part II: No Place to Hide

When I was growing up, I got picked on a lot.  I mean, look at those clothes.  Yes, that is skin you are seeing through that mesh midriff. Not cool.  Not tough.

Kids started small, calling me Crater Face because of the marks left by chicken pocks, Strikeout King because I couldn't hit a baseball in Little League.  By junior high, performing arts had become my solution for a near total lack of athletic talent, and with that came harsher nicknames. Pussy. Fairy. Faggot.  I vividly remember sitting in a History class, mindlessly copying notes, when a kid one row over and one seat back started poking the butt of my jeans with a ruler.  "You like that?" he hissed, "You like that you little faggot?"

Like many typical bullies, the kids who went after me were relentless.  Like many typical kids who get teased, I was resilient.  I was also lucky.  I had no cell phone or computer, no Facebook or Twitter, Yik Yak or Burnbook.  This meant I could leave the torment at the final corner of my walk home, when I turned toward the safety of my neighborhood and my family.  At home, none of that could find me.

As a teacher today, I hear lots of stories from kids who are not as fortunate.  The most recent comes courtesy of a new app called Burnbook - a bit of social media meant to tap into adolescents' mean streaks.  According to the description on the App Store, this gem allows you to "join a community to anonymously post pictures and text."  You can "selectively blur parts of photos," it goes on,"to hide those not so flattering moments.  Save memorable moments to your device using the one-tap screenshot counter."  If you grew up in the age of cellphones, you know what all of that means.  If not, let me explain.

Keep in mind the app's name comes from the movie Mean Girls, in which teenage girls write hateful and hurtful things about their peers in what they call a "burnbook."  Most kids have seen that movie; they know exactly what to do with the new app.

For some kids, being able to "anonymously post pictures and text" means being able to publicly bully and humiliate other kids while hiding in the shadows themselves.  Behind an anonymous keyboard, these kids tap out the words they would never utter in public.  Blurring out those "not so flattering moments" means blurring your own face out of a compromising picture while still exposing someone else.  "Using the one-tap screenshot counter" means being able to instantly save to your phone the picture or text you see on the screen.  See a naked picture of a girl you know, maliciously posted by her angry ex-boyfriend, and in an instant it is yours to keep.  Forever.  Think about that in the hands of a mean-spirited kid.  Snap an embarrassing picture, and broadcast it everywhere.  Make a racist or homophobic joke and share it with the world.  All anonymously.

Read on to the rating provided by the App Store, and you will see that the app is rated 17+ for "Frequent/Intense Alcohol, Tobacco, or Drug Use References; Frequent/Intense Profanity; Frequent/Intense Sexual Content or Nudity," just to name a few.  I had no idea those ratings were even there, and I bet there are a lot of parents who don't know either.  Burnbook is just one example, but similar things are happening on more mainstream social media like Facebook, Snapchat, and Twitter as well.  I see it in high school students, but think about all the elementary school kids with iPhones. 

It's not just calling you names between classes any more.  Secrets told to someone in confidence, or intimate moments shared in private, can become the next update on the phones of an entire student body in seconds.  Now, with cellphones always at the ready, bullies can call you fat right as you step out of your own shower, naked and insecure.  They scream their insults from your lap as you sit at your family's dinner table.  A little bird chirps hate from atop your pillow as you go to sleep, and is there waiting when you wake up.  Phones are the monsters from which some kids simply can't hide.

I believe social media can be a wonderful way for kids to feel connected to others and share their thoughts and observations about the world.  Kids tweet messages of kindness all the time, hilarious jokes, support for those struggling.  I also know the descent into hatred, cruelty, and humiliation can be a swift one.

This reinforces my belief that parents need to be meticulous in our supervision, and kids need to be transparent in their use.  It will help to talk about what to do if they come across stuff like this.  Kids need specific plans, because some of the media they see will be disturbing and adult in its most negative connotations.  It will help if we regularly review the content of our kids' phones, not behind their backs but with them, because they will know about the next new app, or the next humiliating post long before we do.   It involves listening carefully when they talk to us and reading up on the apps they are using.  It means watching over our kids as carefully in the online world as we do in the real one.  They need guidance amid a scary and ever shifting technological landscape.

There will always be bullies saying mean things to other kids.  Let's make it so there are places they can get away from it by limiting the use of phones.  If you saw someone threatening your daughter or telling her she is stupid and ugly, you would protect her.  If you witnessed someone harassing your son, you would not let that person into your home or invite him on a family trip.  When we don't talk about their online activity, when we allow phones at dinner tables and vacations, we risk doing just that.

What would be lost if your family set aside phone-free hours?  What text messages could not wait until the next day?  What tweets could not wait for the next time you needed a little bathroom reading?  What would happen if you did not update your status for a night, or a day, or an entire vacation?

What could be gained by putting your phones away?  I have written before about my own experience cutting down on phone use in an attempt to live more deliberately.  With our phones turned off, maybe we could talk about the punk who spews hate all over the playground and how to stand up to him.  Maybe we could talk about ways to practice kindness.  Maybe we can reclaim our homes as places where our kids can feel totally safe, where they can make their way through the awkwardness of youth and practice being themselves.  We can give them a place of sanctuary.  We can give them time for their imaginations to explore.  We can give them a space free from the pressures of what others think.

Everyday when I went home I could be the karate kid, without anyone making fun of that headband.  I could be the cool guy racing his car along the streets of my imagination.  I could throw on my favorite hat (yep, that one) and disappear into a good book.  I could totally be myself.

I was not cool, but I felt cool.  I was not tough, but I felt tough.


  1. J-these are the things that scare the daylights out of me-the cyber bullying, the photos, the fast pace at which the technology changes so that just when I'm learning about one app, it becomes obsolete and another one replaces it. I feel as though I'm caught in an "in-between" generation-I am not so computer and tech illiterate as the generation before me, but I am not as tech savvy (or dependent) as the generation after me. While I do have a smart phone (and I depend on it tremendously) I don't utilize even half of it's capabilities (partly because I don't know how, partly because I still prefer some of the "old fashion" ways of doing things and partly because I'm just not that interested). But I know that the further behind I get in my knowledge of these things, the harder it's going to be to catch up-and I have will have to catch up, whether I want to or not-because I have kids, And they will grow up with this stuff. And I will need to know how to deal with all of it. And that scares the crap out of me.

    On a side note, I am sure this will come as shock to you, but I was not cool either. :)

  2. I am right there with you. There have been lots of times I have wanted to just get rid of my smartphone and hide somewhere with an actual paper book until it all goes away. I am trying more and more to embrace technology, and use it for good. It is a really powerful tool that can do great things, and I want to be able to show that to my sons. If I don't, I am afraid they will be pulled in to using it for mindless entertainment at best, or what I just wrote about at worst. That is a big part of why I am trying out Twitter. Boy, it is difficult to keep up though.
    As for the coolness...nerds are happier in the long run!


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