Sticks, Stones, and Names Can Damage the Spirit

 

Dr. Warren Blumenfeld

Dr. Warren Blumenfeld

By Warren Blumenfeld
Guest commentator

“Sticks and stones can break my bones, but names can never hurt me.” This stands as one of the great lies our culture teaches us growing up. Another myth states that bullying is simply a sign of a youthful rite of passage, that “boys will be boys” and “girls will be girls,” and that it will toughen them to better meet the demands of life.

 In a new longitudinal study conducted by Boston Children’s Hospital and published in the February 17, 2014 online issue of Pediatrics, while the results might appear rather intuitive, researchers confirmed that the longer the period of time peers bully a young person, the more severe and lasting the impact on that person’s health.

 I did not have to wait for the recent study to understand full well the long term consequences of bullying. For most of my years in school, I was continually attacked and beaten by my peers who perceived me as someone who was “different.” Names like “queer,” “little girl,” and “fag” rained down upon me like the big red dodge ball my classmates furiously hurled at one another on the schoolyard. I would not – or rather, could not – conform to the gender roles that my family and peers so clearly expected me to follow, and I regularly paid the price.

 This kind of bullying and policing of my gender started the very first day I entered kindergarten. In 1952 I attended public school in Bronxville, NY. As my mother dropped me off and kissed me good-bye on the cheek, I felt completely alone and began to cry. My new teacher walked up to me and said, in a somewhat detached tone of voice, “Don’t cry. Only sissies and little girls cry.” Some of the other boys overheard her, and quickly began mocking me. “The little girl wants his mommy,” one said. “What a sissy,” said another. Without a word, the teacher simply walked away. I went into the coatroom and cried, huddling in a corner by myself, until she found me.

 Not knowing what else to do at this time with what they considered as my gender non-conformity, my parents sent me to a child psychologist at the age of four until my 13th birthday because they feared that I might be gay (or to use the terminology of the day, “homosexual”), and because they were afraid for my safety.

 There was a basic routine in the “therapy” sessions. My mother took me out of school every Monday and Thursday at 11:00 to the psychologist’s office. I walked in, took off my coat, and put it on the hook behind the door. The psychologist then asked me if there was anything in particular I wanted to discuss. I invariably said “no.” Since I did not understand why I was there in the first place, I surely did not trust him enough to talk candidly.

 When I was less than forthcoming in our conversations (which was on most occasions), he took down from the shelf a model airplane, or a boat, or a truck, and we spent the remainder of the hour assembling the pieces with glue. In private sessions with my parents, he told them that he wanted me to concentrate on behaviors and activities associated with males, while of course avoiding those associated with females. He instructed my parents to assign me the household tasks of taking out the garbage, mowing the lawn (even though we lived in an apartment building and we did not have a lawn), and not washing or drying the dishes. Also, he also told my parents to prevent my playing with dolls or to cook. And – as if this all was not enough – he advised my parents to sign me up for a little league baseball league, which despite my hatred of the sport, my father basically forced me to join for two summers.

 “When you wave,” my father sternly warned one afternoon on the front steps of our apartment building when I was eight years old, “you MUST move your whole hand at the same time. Don’t just move the fingers up and down like you’re doing.” He grabbed my arm, and despite my free-flowing tears and cheeks red with shame, he vigorously demonstrated the “proper” hand wave for a “man.” Then, as if anticipating the scene in the film La Cage Aux Folles (and the U.S. remake The Birdcage), my father took me into the backyard and forced me to walk and run “like men are supposed to move their bodies.” Obviously, I had previously been doing something wrong. “Of course the other children pick on you,” he blamed. “You do act like a girl.” I was humiliated.

 Despite this, I developed what would become a lifelong appreciation of music and art. In the fifth grade, I auditioned for the school chorus and the music teacher accepted me along with only a handful of boys and about 50 girls. The scarcity of boys in the cast was not due to any gendered imbalance in the quality of boys’ singing voices. The determining factor was one of social pressure. I and the other few boys in the chorus were generally disliked by our peers. In fact, most of the other boys in our class picked on us, and labeled us “the chorus girls,” “the fags,” “the sissies,” and “the fairies.” The girls, on the other hand, who “made it” into the chorus were well respected and even envied by the other girls.

 I can see now that this all amounted to an insidious and dehumanizing fear and hatred of anything even hinting at femininity in males. This is, of course basically thinly veiled misogyny, and it nearly succeeded in taking my life.

 Looking into the bathroom mirror, my 14-year-old self stared back at me, tears rolling down into the sink below. All I could envision was the continual and relentless attacks: boys flicking my ears from behind aboard the school bus, girls loudly giggling as I walked by, peers isolating me on the school yard keeping me from playing games or joining them for lunch, students flinging food at me from multiple corners of the lunchroom, boys waiting for me with constant blows to my stomach and face when teachers weren’t looking.

 I don’t remember where, but I learned that if I took more than the recommended dosage of aspirin tablets, I could develop serious internal bleeding. Seeing no way out, I opened the bathroom medicine cabinet turning my 14-year-old reflection away. Reaching inside, I grabbed the 1000-count aspirin bottle, and with hands shaking, soundlessly twisted off the cap as not to arouse suspicion from my family just beyond the door. Then with seeming effortlessness, I poured a handful of pills as if I were pouring salt into a shaker. With little hesitation, I lifted my clenched hand toward my mouth and tossed the white disks into my mouth, choking and gagging as they hit my throat, then heaving back toward my tongue, then teeth, then into the sink.

 Though I was angry at myself for not having the “stomach” to kill myself, I was also relieved because I suppose at least a part of me still wished to live.

 All things considered, my life turned out fairly well. I entered college in 1965 during a time our society underwent dynamic changes. I joined with others to demonstrate our opposition to the war in Vietnam; I worked with students of color in our common struggle against housing discrimination around our campus, and I helped plan ecology workshops to highlight the state of our increasingly polluted planet. I chose to join a therapy group in my college counseling center, which gave me the support to “come out” as gay. I later went on to become a teacher for blind children, a journalist, and a tenured university professor.

 As I am writing this today at age 66, I consider myself not as a victim, but rather as a survivor of the bullying and abuse from those earlier times. When my therapist diagnosed me having Post-traumatic Stress Disorder, along with Social anxiety disorder, moderate agoraphobia, and clinical depression nearly 25 years ago, I was actually relieved, for then I could begin to let go of the self-blame I had carried for so long.

 Today, I often hear Steven Sondheim’s song, “Anyone Can Whistle,” in my minds ear, a Broadway show tune about a person who has accomplished many difficult tasks – like speaking Greek, dancing the tango, even slaying a dragon – but who seems incapable of managing simple things like whistling.

Anyone can whistle, that’s what they say — easy.
Anyone can whistle, any old day — easy.
It’s all so simple.
Relax, let go, let fly.
So someone tell me, why can’t I?

 In my life, I earned numerous degrees including a doctorate, and I published quite a number of books and peer reviewed journal articles. I have been asked to speak throughout the United States and around the world on varied topics, and I have been given a wonderful opportunity to travel to places I only dreamt about when I was younger.

 I have come to understand full well, though, and I have come to accept my severe limitations due to the damage I endured from those earlier times. Sondheim’s “whistling” stands as an analogy for relationships.

Though I have attempted to develop long-term romantic relationships along my way, I have come to endure the harm to my emotional self. I have lived alone since 1977 following a series of tries at sharing residences with trusted roommates, though none of these living arrangements worked for me.

 In truth, sticks, stone, and names can damage the body as well as the spirit, and they all can kill. Fortunately, schools have at least begun to leave the myths and lies behind, and to take actions. Most notably, we are witnessing more schools conducting programs to empower the so-called “bystanders” – those who know of the bullying, but often feel powerless to step in – transforming them into active “upstanders” intervening to stop the abuse.  

 With knowledge, understanding, and interventions, young people are now leading the way to a better future. So…

Maybe you could show me how to let go,
Lower my guard,
Learn to be free.
Maybe if you whistle,
Whistle for me.

Dr. Warren J. Blumenfeld is author of Warren’s Words: Smart Commentary on Social Justice (Purple Press); editor ofHomophobia: How We All Pay the Price (Beacon Press), and co-editor of Readings for Diversity and Social Justice (Routledge) and Investigating Christian Privilege and Religious Oppression in the United States (Sense).

 

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People who suffer from so-called ‘game addiction’ have other problems

by Larry Magid

This post first appeared in the San Jose Mercury News

There was a big flap last week over the game “Flappy Bird,” an iPhone and Android app that was pulled out of app stores by its Hanoi-based creator, Dong Nguyen.

It all started when Nguyen tweeted that, “I am sorry ‘Flappy Bird’ users, 22 hours from now, I will take ‘Flappy Bird’ down. I cannot take this anymore.” A couple of days. later, the 29 year-old followed up by removing it from the Apple and Android app stores

Flappy Bird was an incredibly popular game, reportedly having been downloaded more than 50 million times. The free game was supported by advertising and, before he announced he was pulling it, Nguyen told The Verge website that it was generating about $50,000 a day in advertising revenue.

The game, which is quite hard to play, involves trying to get the bird to fly between pipes. Every time I played it, the bird and pipes collided.

During the day or so between his announcement and pulling the game, there was lots of speculation about why Nguyen made this decision to jettison a popular and highly profitable product. Some called it a publicity stunt: others worried that maybe he was suffering from some mental illness. But last Monday, Nguyen told Forbes.com that he had removed the game because “it has become a problem.” He said that “it happened to become an addictive product.”

The Forbes interview left me with more questions than answers. It’s hard to believe that someone would pull such a popular and profitable product from the market just because some people may be using it in a compulsive manner. Could it be that Nguyen had ulterior motives?

He’s in Vietnam and I don’t have a way to contact him, so I can’t ask him directly. But we do know that Nguyen’s gotten an enormous amount of free publicity, not just about this game, but about his career as a game developer. This isn’t the only successful smartphone game he’s written. He also created “Super Ball Juggling” and “Shuriken Block,” which were the eighth and 17th most popular iOS free games when I checked a few days ago. What’s more, even though you can no longer download Flappy Bird, those who already have it can continue to play and keep generating advertising revenue for Nguyen. Nguyen has said that he plans to develop other games, and I’m betting that whatever he creates will be widely covered by the tech media and downloaded by millions of people.

In his Forbes interview, Nguyen also expressed some personal reasons for grounding Flappy Bird. He told Forbes Asian reporter Lan Anh Nguyen that “my life has not been as comfortable as it was before” and that “he couldn’t sleep.”

But if Nguyen’s motive was mainly to prevent more people from becoming “addicted” to Flappy Bird, pulling the game from the marketplace isn’t likely to accomplish anything. Sure, it will prevent others from spending an enormous amount of time using that particular game, but curing so-called gaming addiction by deleting one game would be like trying to cure alcoholism by taking a particular brand of whiskey off the market. Even outlawing all liquor, as we tried during Prohibition, didn’t keep people from using or abusing alcohol if they really wanted to get a hold of it.

The bigger question here is the extent to which game addiction is a problem, and how we treat it. Technically it’s not yet a recognized mental disorder in the United States. The 2013 edition of the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders describes “Internet Gaming Disorder” as a “condition warranting more clinical research and experience.” Still, a lot of mental health professionals do worry about compulsive gaming behavior, which has been also associated with physical ailments and even death in extreme cases, especially when gamers are so obsessed with their games that they ignore nutrition and sleep while living on copious quantities of caffeine-laden drinks and junk food.

But despite the well-publicized cases of obsessive or harmful use of video games, social networking sites, apps and other technologies, millions of people engage in these activities with no noticeable problems. Just as most adults can drink an occasional alcoholic beverage without becoming addicted, the vast majority of adults and kids can play games or use other technologies without any major ill-effect.

If someone is addicted to Flappy Bird or any other product, it’s a problem that needs attention. So rather than ban or pull games off the market, we need to redouble our mental health efforts to give compulsive gamers the skills they need to lead more balanced lives.

Mr. Nguyen has the right to do whatever he wants with Flappy Bird, but if he asked me for advice, I’d tell him to put it back in the app stores and donate that $50,000 a day to mental health programs that help problem gamers control their impulses.

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U.S. Safer Internet Day focuses on potential, positives and problems too

Senator Charles Schumer with student panel at U.S. Safe

Senator Charles Schumer with student panel at U.S. Safer Internet Day (photo: Sarah Baker)

It was a great honor that ConnectSafely.org, the non-profit Internet Safety organization where I serve as co-director, was selected to host the first official U.S. Safer Internet Day.  The day, which has been celebrated in Europe for the past 11 years, saw events across the world including a celebration in Washington D.C. Tuesday where Senator Chuck Schumer (D-NY) spoke along with a panel of high school student leaders and another panel of social media executives.

I moderated the event along with ConnectSafely.org co-director Anne Collier.

On a panel moderated by 17 year-old Aidan McDaniel of West Virginia, executives from Facebook (Instagram), Google (YouTube), Microsoft (Xbox Live), Twitter and Yahoo (Tumblr) talked about the way their companies deal with abuse reports, child pornography, bullying and other problems. But they all agreed that the overwhelming majority of their users are good online citizens.

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Students attending Safer Internet Day U.S. (photo: Sarah Baker)

Just as cities and towns have to spend resources dealing with a small number of  trouble-makers, social media companies need to police their services so  users have mostly good experiences. All of these companies maintain close ties with law enforcement, which helps them deal with the most egregious problems. But in most cases when problems come up, they’re handled internally by warning the offending user or – if necessary – kicking them off the service.

Social reporting

Facebook now enlists its users to help each other with what they call “social reporting.” Instead of Facebook staff intervening in what are often relationship issues, they offer a tool that helps users work it out among themselves or seek help from a trusted third party.  The program, which is carried out with help from the Center for Emotional Intelligence at Yale, has been very effective, according to its developer, Facebook engineering Arturo Bejar. “We found when we were looking at reports that there were a lot of things getting reported that were really misunderstandings or disagreements among people who use the site,” he told me in an interview shortly after the company launched the program.

One Good Thing

While some of the day focused on problems encountered online, much of the discussion at the U.S. Safer Internet Day celebration focused on the positive things people are doing with connected technology. An important part of ConnectSafely’s program this year is the ‘One Good Thing” campaign that encourages people around the country to post positive short videos or blog posts positive things they have done or know about, using the Internet or mobile devices. The list ranges from high school kids using Facebook to promote a “Save the Pandas” campaign to a college student who spoke about the  online support given to him and friends  after the death of a fellow student. Others talk about their school’s “compliments page” or how they have gone online to support fellow students who have been cyberbullied. You can view and read these great things (and add your own) at OneGoodThing.us.

The youth student panel, moderated by Yahoo Tech “Modern Family” columnist Dan Tynan, included students from Washington DC, Chicago and Detroit. The young panelists talked about ways students can be “upstanders” rather than bystanders when someone they know is bullied online or off.  And, the kids pointed out that bullying is not as common as some adults may think. Most of their classmates treat each other with respect at school and online.

Senator Schumer on economic benefit of net

The final speaker at the Washington event was Senator Schumer, who quipped, “While I’ve probably never snapchatted with Senator Rand Paul, I do understand the great potential of the Internet.”

He said that it is now a very important part of New York’s economy, both in cities (New York city is giving Silicon Valley a run for its money) and in rural areas. He pointed out that it increases political engagement of youth and has resulted in far more young people wanting to work for elected officials. He also touched on the Internet’s role in education and telemedicine and reminded the audience that it’s “important for every family to talk about Internet safety and rules in their household.”

Safer Internet Day 2014 has come and gone, but every day is safer and better Internet day. This year’s theme, “Let’s create a better Internet together,” is a rallying call not for legislation, big pronouncements or major new products but ways that we can all contribute every day by remembering that the Internet isn’t really a network of machines but a network of people with aspirations and feelings. So, it’s really not about creating a better Internet but creating a better world.

 

 

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Safer Internet Day Event — View Live

Event starts at 9:00 AM Eastern February 11, 2014

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Safer Internet Day celebrates the good done online

By Larry Magid
This column first appeared in the San Jose Mercury News

sid_tv_little

Click the TV to watch the event live at 9:00 AM ET Tues

By Larry Magid
This post first appeared in the San Jose Mercury News

For the past 11 years, the European Commission and InSafe, a Brussels-based nonprofit, have been coordinating Safer Internet Day celebrations across Europe and other parts of the world. It will be celebrated this year on Tuesday.

There have been sporadic Safer Internet events in the United States but, until now, it hasn’t been coordinated or official. But in late 2012, then Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano and European Vice President Neelie Kroes signed a joint declaration to bring Safer Internet Day to the United States.

ConnectSafely.org, the nonprofit Internet safety organization where I serve as co-director, was asked to host and coordinate U.S. events. We’re planning an event in Washington, D.C., featuring a talk by Senator Charles Schumer, D-NY, a panel of high-school leaders from the across the country and a panel of executives from Facebook, Google, Twitter and Yahoo. Kroes will address the gathering by video.

The event will be webcast live starting at 6 a.m. Pacific time at ConnectSafely.org/sidvideo. It will also be carried on Facebook Live and archived for later viewing.

The international theme of this year’s celebration is “Let’s create a better Internet together.” Rather than just focusing on all the negative things that can happen online, we’re focused on what’s good about how people, including kids and teens, are using connected technology and what we can all do to make things better.

In the United States, we’ve launched a “One Good Thing” campaign where people have contributed videos and short blog posts about things they done or witnessed that improve the Internet or use the Internet and mobile technology to make the world a better place. You can view those entries at SaferInternetDay.us/blog.

One Good Things

Some of those “good things” come from teens, including Esmi and Jessie, who said they post anonymous compliments to teens who have gotten hateful messages on Ask.fm. Maddie and Monica talked about how they donated blood and used Instagram to encourages others to do likewise. Grant talked about posting to the compliments page on his high school’s website to “send out daily complements to brighten everyone’s day.” Emily talked about how her cousin had a friend who passed away but took solace in all the support he received from friends.

None of these examples are earth shattering, but that’s the point. They are little things that people of all ages do on a regular basis to make life better for other people.

Going positive

We started this campaign because we’re tired of all the negativity. Sure, there are bad things that happen online and it’s important to deal with cyberbullying, trolling, hate speech, unwanted sexual solicitations, sexting, unwanted porn and the risk to one’s security and privacy. It’s also important to remind both kids and adults that what they say online can stick around forever and come back to haunt them. That’s all part of Safer Internet Day, but it’s also a time to celebrate the positive and remind adults, including the Washington policy makers who will be at our event, that — like most adults — most kids are thoughtful in the way they use technology and try to respect themselves and others.

Yes, there are kids who bully online. But most kids don’t engage in that type of hurtful behavior and, when it does happen, it has a lot more to do with the relationships they have than the technology itself.

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Safer Internet Day comes to US

View the live webcast here from 9:00 AM to noon Eastern (6:00 to 9:00 PT)

by Larry Magid
This column first appeared in the San Jose Mercury News

For the past 11 years, the European Commission and InSafe, a Brussels-based nonprofit, have been coordinating Safer Internet Day celebrations across Europe and other parts of the world. It will be celebrated this year on Tuesday.

There have been sporadic Safer Internet events in the United States but, until now, it hasn’t been coordinated or official. But in late 2012, then Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano and European Vice President Neelie Kroes signed a joint declaration to bring Safer Internet Day to the United States.

ConnectSafely.org, the nonprofit Internet safety organization where I serve as co-director, was asked to host and coordinate U.S. events. We’re planning an event in Washington, D.C., featuring a talk by Senator Charles Schumer, D-NY, a panel of high-school leaders from the across the country and a panel of executives from Facebook, Google, Twitter and Yahoo. Kroes will address the gathering by video.

The event will be webcast live starting at 6 a.m. Pacific time at ConnectSafely.org/sidvideo. It will also be carried on Facebook Live and archived for later viewing.

The international theme of this year’s celebration is “Let’s create a better Internet together.” Rather than just focusing on all the negative things that can happen online, we’re focused on what’s good about how people, including kids and teens, are using connected technology and what we can all do to make things better.

In the United States, we’ve launched a “One Good Thing” campaign where people have contributed videos and short blog posts about things they done or witnessed that improve the Internet or use the Internet and mobile technology to make the world a better place. You can view those entries at SaferInternetDay.us/blog.

One Good Things

Some of those “good things” come from teens, including Esmi and Jessie, who said they post anonymous compliments to teens who have gotten hateful messages on Ask.fm. Maddie and Monica talked about how they donated blood and used Instagram to encourages others to do likewise. Grant talked about posting to the compliments page on his high school’s website to “send out daily complements to brighten everyone’s day.” Emily talked about how her cousin had a friend who passed away but took solace in all the support he received from friends.

None of these examples are earth shattering, but that’s the point. They are little things that people of all ages do on a regular basis to make life better for other people.

Going positive

We started this campaign because we’re tired of all the negativity. Sure, there are bad things that happen online and it’s important to deal with cyberbullying, trolling, hate speech, unwanted sexual solicitations, sexting, unwanted porn and the risk to one’s security and privacy. It’s also important to remind both kids and adults that what they say online can stick around forever and come back to haunt them. That’s all part of Safer Internet Day, but it’s also a time to celebrate the positive and remind adults, including the Washington policy makers who will be at our event, that — like most adults — most kids are thoughtful in the way they use technology and try to respect themselves and others.

Yes, there are kids who bully online. But most kids don’t engage in that type of hurtful behavior and, when it does happen, it has a lot more to do with the relationships they have than the technology itself.

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Family Contract For Smartphone Use

Just updated the family contract for smartphone use aimed at parents, kids and teens.

You can find it here:

 

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Apple and FTC reach agreement about children’s app purchases

This post first appeared on Forbes.com

FTC and Apple enter into agreement with Apple on children’s apps

FTC enters into agreement with Apple on children’s apps

The Federal Trade Commission announced that it has entered into a consent decree with Apple regarding alleged charges that Apple allowed children to purchase apps and make in-app purchases on its app store.

The FTC accused Apple of failing to inform parents that there is a 15-minute window when a parent enters a password to purchase an app. Without that knowledge, the commission alleges that children have been able to purchase apps within that period without parental knowledge.

The agreement requires Apple to pay a minimum of $32.5 million in refunds to parents for unauthorized charges,  but if requests are below that, the difference will be paid to the FTC.  The FTC said it aims to achieve “full consumer redress,” and there is no maximum on what Apple will have to pay, if the claims exceed the $32.5 million.”

At a press conference FTC chair Edith Ramirez added that the FTC  is also putting controls on how Apple handles in-app purchases. Apple will be required to obtain “informed consent for charges to consumers.”  The order requires Apple to send out an email to potentially affected consumers with information on how to apply for a refund. She said that the basic principal that Apple agreed to will also apply to other companies. Apple, according to the FTC, “also will be required to change its billing practices to ensure that it has obtained express, informed consent from consumers before charging them for items sold in mobile apps.”

Just ahead of the press conference, Recode.net published an email from Apple CEO Tim Cook to employees about the settlement.  Cook said that Apple is already doing what the settlement calls for and that “ It doesn’t feel right for the FTC to sue over a case that had already been settled. To us, it smacked of double jeopardy.”  Cook said “the 15-minute window had been there since the launch of the App Store in 2008 and was aimed at making the App Store easy to use, but some younger customers discovered that it also allowed them to make in-app purchases without a parent’s approval.”

In response to my question, Ramirez said that  ”Apple was aware of this issue since at least March of 2011″ and that “in our view the problem continues.” In response to another reporter, Ramirez said that the agreement goes beyond the earlier settlement and “provides more robust relief.” It also requires Apple to change its practices to assure that there is proper notice given to account holders and parents so that they understand that the 15 minute window is being opened when they give consent.

In a statement, Ramirez called the settlement ““a victory for consumers harmed by Apple’s unfair billing, and a signal to the business community: whether you’re doing business in the mobile arena or the mall down the street, fundamental consumer protections apply.”

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Scuttle the “Bully Pulpit” Metaphor

Guest post

by Warren Blumenfeld

Dr. Warren Blumenfeld

Dr. Warren Blumenfeld

New words join while some words perish from all languages. Some words remain though altering or transforming their meanings to varying degrees between eras. A number of words even expand to include additional parts of speech, for example, former nouns enter the realm of verbs, like the noun “text” to the verb “to text,” the noun “lunch” to the verb “to lunch,” and many others. I’ve even added to this trend by connecting the noun “dissertation” to the action verb “to dissertate,” meaning the process of researching and writing a dissertation. I don’t think this has a chance, though, of going viral anytime soon (noun “virus” to the verb “to go viral”).

This year, my college students introduced me to the terms “meme” (a cultural image, video, or phrase) and “selfie” (a picture one takes of oneself with a smartphone or webcam and distributes on the web), so now I feel “in” with the lingo (though I’m probably self-deluded).

I am struck by the enormous variety of terms that we as a society have altered in their meanings over the years. Recently a student talked in class about the “sick” son of a famous social activist. When the class noticed the look of deep concern on my face, they laughed, and one student informed me that “sick” now also means “awesome.” Students also taught me that “crib” can now mean “home,” and “scoop” can mean to “pick one up in one’s car.” I have learned also, that the term “luxury,” back in the 14th century, in French “luxurie,” meant “sexual intercourse,” and by the 15th century expanded to “lasciviousness” and “sinfulness.”  We clearly do not employ the term with this meaning today.

I was raised at a time when my parents and grandparents referred to the “Frigidaire” or to the “ice box” for what our society commonly refers to as a “refrigerator.” Sometimes I unconsciously let slip the term “ice box,” and my friends remark that “I am dating myself.”

I see similar breakdowns and misunderstandings between generations over the expression “bully pulpit.” President Theodore Roosevelt coined the expression, and reportedly first used it in 1909: “I suppose my critics will call that preaching, but I have got such a bully pulpit!” (February 27, 1909, issue of The Outlook magazine).

‘Bully’ had a different meaning back then

In this quote, Roosevelt referred to how the presidency offered the resident of the White House a wonderful opportunity, an awesome platform, to promote an agenda or series of programs. Within Roosevelt’s United States, “bully” often suggested or denoted “magnificent,” “superb,” “amazing,” “fantastic,” “great,” or “marvelous” as in the expression “bully for you” (“good for you,” “fantastic work”).

As was the case in Roosevelt’s time as it is today, a “pulpit” is a physical structure, a platform or foundation, from which one presents a sermon within a religious house of worship.

As we know today, however, “bully” no longer retains its positive meanings. Rather, according to the prestigious Journal of the American Medication Association (2001), “Bullying is a specific type of aggression in which (1) the behavior is intended to harm or disturb, (2) the behavior occurs repeatedly over time, and (3) there is an imbalance of power, with a more powerful person or group attacking a less powerful one….”

Studies reveal inconsistent results over the actual rates of bullying behaviors evidenced in our workplaces and in our schools, but most reputable research acknowledge the prevalence of these destructive behaviors not only on the targets of bullying, but also on the perpetrators.

We need, therefore, to ask some critical questions. For example, given contemporary meanings and understandings of the term “bully,” are we in fact stating directly, or at least implying, that by advancing the metaphoric expression of the “bully pulpit,” we are promoting the notion that “might makes right,” that people with political power can use that power to figuratively at least beat their opponents into submission? And if so, what kinds of messages are we sending our youth? Moreover, in a nation purportedly separating religion from government, how appropriate is it for politicians to use sectarian (“pulpit”) metaphors.

I contend that we must not view bullying and harassment as simply youth problems and behaviors, but rather, investigate the contexts in which bullying “trickles down” from the larger society and reproduces itself within the schools. Young people, through the process of social learning, often acquire bullying and harassing attitudes and behaviors, many times from “adults,” and also often learn from them the socially sanctioned targets for their aggressive behaviors.

I refer to this as the “social ecology” of bullying and harassment. Ecology can be defined as the relationships between organisms and their environments. We must, therefore, investigate the larger sociological and psychological environments for us to determine, understand, and if necessary, institute procedures to change our institutional environments.

“Bully pulpit” as Teddy Roosevelt understood the expression, I contend, has morphed, evolved, and transformed into what we might call today the President’s “leadership platform,” and how the presidency offers the resident of the White House a wonderful opportunity, an awesome platform, to promote an agenda or series of programs.

As it is often said that “elections have consequences,” in fact so do words. Therefore, let us assign and bury the “bully pulpit” to the archives of linguistics.

References

JAMA: Journal of the American Medical Association, April 25, 2001. Vol. 285, No. 16).

Dr. Warren J. Blumenfeld is author of Warren’s Words: Smart Commentary on Social Justice (Purple Press); editor of Homophobia: How We All Pay the Price (Beacon Press), and co-editor of Readings for Diversity and Social Justice (Routledge) and Investigating Christian Privilege and Religious Oppression in the United States (Sense).

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National Center adds another layer to children’s safety online

For several years, I’ve been on the board of the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children (NCMEC). The organization, which is based in Alexandria, Va., is best known for helping to reunite missing children with their custodial parents or guardians, but it also strives to protect children from sexual exploitation in both the physical and cyber worlds.

In addition to its national headquarters, NCMEC operates branch offices in a handful of cities across the country and has just opened a Silicon Valley office in Palo Alto. One reason, according to NCMEC spokesperson Stacy Garret, is to be closer to the technology companies that play such an important role in the lives of children and teens. About 95 percent of American teens are online, according to Pew Research, and most are regular users of social media sites and services like Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and Snapchat. A May 2013 Pew study found that 91 percent of teens had posted a photo of themselves online, up from 79 percent in 2006. More than seven in 10 (71 percent) post their school name, 71 percent also post the city or town where they live, and more than half (53 percent) post their email address. A fifth of teens post their cellphone number — up from only 2 percent in 2006.

None of these activities are necessarily dangerous. Research from the Crimes Against Children Research Center has found that posting of such personal information doesn’t correlate with exploitation nearly as much as such risky behaviors as talking to a stranger online about sex. The good news is that most young people are pretty smart when it comes to protecting themselves from online predators and — based on research from Pew — we also know that most kids also take at least some steps to protect their privacy.

Still, the National Center has plenty of work to do when it comes to protecting kids online. One of the goals of the new office is to work with tech companies to bake child protection into their products from day one. It’s similar to the notion of “privacy by design.” Rather than making safety an afterthought — something the company gets around to after the product has been around for a while — it’s much better if companies think about the possible dangers as they develop their products.

The nonprofit organization I co-direct, ConnectSafely.org, works closely with (and receives financial support from) Facebook, Google, Twitter, LinkedIn and other social networking companies to help them think about safety, security, privacy, appropriate content and social interactions between users, and I’m happy to say that these companies employ professionals who put a lot of thought into these issues.

While my group and other Internet safety organizations can advise these companies on a range of issues such as cyberbullying and encouraging positive online interactions, NCMEC plays a unique role because of its focus on child exploitation and its close ties to law enforcement. NCMEC analysts understand — far more than I do — the extent to which children can be harmed in a variety of ways ranging from the (fortunately fairly rare) cases where children are lured into sex with people they meet online to the far more common problem of online child pornography, Child porn — also referred to as sexual abuse images — is illegal in the United States and most other countries, yet as NCMEC analysts have repeatedly pointed out, there is still a great deal of child porn being produced and distributed online and much of it is coming from the U.S. Many tech firms use Photo DNA to identify such images. The technology, which was developed by Microsoft, is being used to compare a newly found image with a database of known images to both identify a potential child porn image and determine whether it’s an old image or could be a newer picture of a child still in danger.

We also know that there are still cases in which children have been harmed as a result of an online interaction. There are a variety of issues at stake, including the risks that the child takes, the design of the product and the efforts the company makes to provide education to youth, as well as to identify and deter predatory behavior. With NCMEC’s help, it’s my hope and belief that companies will get better at that and children will get even savvier when it comes to avoiding risky behavior.

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