Recently, I was speaking with a group of parents and students about the negative effects of cyberbullying. A seventh-grade girl told me tearfully, “I am constantly being judged. Judged by kids I don’t know; judged by kids I do know, judged, judged, judged by EVERYONE.”
It is a phenomenon that extends far beyond the world of middle schoolers. The online occupants of glass houses are happy to throw handfuls of stones at anyone and everyone. Trial by Internet leads to summary judgment, and the sentence is a label slapped onto you as surely as the Scarlet A was pinned to Hester Prynne.
People on the Internet rapidly switch from making critical judgments about your argument (acceptable) into making sweeping personal judgments about your character, your lifestyle and your worth (unacceptable).
Two weeks ago, I had the fascinating experience of receiving negative personal judgment by strangers, based on a blog post I wrote about a miserable flying experience with my baby. It was painful to watch some people attack the type of parent I am. It hurt.
Until it didn’t.
Why? Why did it stop hurting? Aaah, yes, this is the crux of this post, in the hopes that others can find relief as quickly as I did.
My husband Andrew said to me, “Think about the advice you give kids when you visit schools. You talk to them all the time about how to manage cyberbullying. Why don’t you do the same things that you tell them to do.”
And so I did. Step by step, I removed the power from others and reclaimed it for myself. I followed the advice that I learned while researching my book on bullying, the very advice I learned from experts in the field of cyberbullying:
1) Do not engage in back-and-forth exchanges with individual attackers. Although it was hard, I resisted the urge to waste my energy addressing specific people, because it usually turns into a mud-slinging fest.
2) Do not retaliate, lest you end up making sweeping personal judgments too.
3) Block and delete as necessary. There were several comments that I found so ludicrous that I chose to “hide” them, so they are now only visible to the commenters and the friends of those commenters, but not to the rest of the world.
4) GET OFFLINE. I took a break from my computer, my texting, my Facebook and my Twitter for the next couple of days. I spent time with my family and some dear friends. I lived in the real world, not the virtual world.
5) Spend some time cognitively reframing the event, and reaffirm your value. I thought about what a fantastic mom I am. I noticed that there were hundreds and hundreds of "likes" on the post that attracted some negative comments. I was soon able to laugh at the preposterous notion that a few strangers on the Internet made me feel bad. The love and connection I share with my children and my husband is testimony to the type of mother I am, and nothing else matters.
6) When you return online, do NOT revisit the comment threads that were upsetting you. Disengage, disengage, disengage. The attackers get bored if you don’t respond. And what you aren’t reading cannot hurt you. So simple, yet so true. If a tree falls in the forest and no one hears it or sees it, did it fall? Apply that philosophy to judgmental comments.
7) If the attack is coming from a friend or family member, do NOT respond through email, text or Facebook. Conflict should be resolved in person, either on the phone or face-to-face. Fortunately for me, most of my family is too busy to read all the articles I write. Most of them still have a copy of Bullied unopened on their bedstand.
I have decided to share my experience, so that others feel less alone when it happens to them. Oh, how fragile we human beings are, and yet impossibly resilient at the same time! Five hundred people can say something kind to us, but the wounding words of a few demand our energy and attention. It is unacceptable for others to judge you, so do not accept it. Reject that notion, and free yourself from the angst.
I am astonished by all the ways in which people leap to label others on the Internet:
- A teenager who ends up pregnant need not be labeled a slut.
- A cancer parent who has made the agonizing decision to continue a child’s treatments in the hopes that life will be eked out a little longer need not be labeled as a torturer.
- An adoptive mom who writes about her grief at a disrupted placement need not be labeled as a selfish bitch who wants to legally kidnap children from birthmothers.
- A man with a large physique need not be labeled as fat and lazy, when in actuality he is a distance runner.
- A mother who supports her child’s right to wear gender nonconforming clothing or hairstyles need not be labeled as a child abuser.
- A mom who writes about the risks of the sexualization of girls need not be labeled a Feminazi.
And on and on and on and on.
You can choose not to accept the judgment and the extrapolations, because how can a person know what type of human being you are based on a 15-word status update or a 1,500 word blog post? The Internet looks at things in black and white, but the truth is that there are 50,000 shades of gray. Only YOU know the details and circumstances that fully inform your experiences, and it is impossible to convey the richness of your life’s decisions to others.
Instead, we can triumph by not being silenced by the armchair judges. I received many private messages and emails this week from parents who wanted me to know how much they love honest flaw-filled parenting blogs. It is scary as hell to be a parent, to be charged with the sacred duty of guiding the life of another person, and there are a ton of mommy judgers out there, just waiting to pounce.
But here is the uplifting news – for every mommy judger, there are multiple mommy supporters. If you look at the most popular parenting bloggers, many of them are moms who write bravely and humorously about the trials and errors of parenting. Find those who believe in you and support you, and let their faith in you boost you up.
To all the mompetitors and the mommumists and the my-kid-will-never people out there, carry on doing your thing. Pats on the back to you. And those of us who screw up and laugh and cry and share our experiences will keep doing our thing. We can ease the fear and tension in parenting by talking about the moments that were particularly horrifying.
Now I need to hop off the computer and go upstairs. I hear my kids jumping off K’s 9-ft-tall top bunk and landing in the bean bag. Last time they did this, they also lined up little plastic animals on the blades of the ceiling fan and gave it a great spin as they leaped off the bed in order to watch the animals fly around the room. Duty calls.
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