Letter to My Generation: We Need to Do Better
The internet is the real world.
It’s a philosophy people need to take up to understand how high the stakes can be when they engage in online activities, but millennials are flipping this point of view on its head in ways I could never have imagined.
Social media gives us the opportunity to connect with a much broader audience than older technologies ever did. Even when cell phones hit the masses in the late 1990s, it was inconceivable that 100-plus “friends” might have the ability to endorse your latest anecdote with a virtual thumbs-up in a matter of minutes. These days, the lengths some people will go to for the all-powerful “like” is beyond all semblance of dignity.
The Age of Constant Connectedness
I first learned about Facebook in my early teen years. Even though my friends and I agreed that the idea of an online “book” of people’s personal info sounded awkward, we had been exposed to the concept by early social networking environments like MySpace. We got it.
Facebook was going to be different, though. As it picked up speed, it was clear that this was something almost everyone would have. And so Facebook and the various social media outlets that followed became not just a part of everyday life, but a significant part of our own personal identities. Being popular on social media became valuable.
I Can Shock the World
There’s a problem, though. Social media might connect us with our friends, but it also connects us to millions of other humans with whom we have no relationship. It begs the question: why do we still seek their approval?
Additionally, when we engage with people we don’t recognize in videos, pictures and stories on social media, it can be challenging to humanize them. We know nothing about them. They’re just included in the content our culture says we need to keep creating. The culture of social media actually makes everyone somewhat of an extrovert in the online realm.
For most people, this is just a reality of the way we communicate over social media. Certain personality types, however, enjoy the attention that comes with exploiting this disassociation. They thrive on the response they get from sharing offensive or even harmful content with the world via social media. Should we be surprised this happens?
You might think no, we shouldn’t. It’s human nature to gossip, right? That may be true, but the lengths to which some will go for attention are sickening.
When Going Viral Goes Wrong
Too often, social media is used as a mirror for others’ bad fortune. Stories we would never want to hear about people close to us become famous overnight because someone even moderately influential believes it will be click-worthy. In the worst cases, these stories become pop-culture cannon and get repeated through our cultural discourse.
“Powder slapping” was a social media phenomenon when I was in school. Men would upload pictures or video of themselves or friends slapping women with baby powder or other bright white substances on their hands. Not only was the practice sexist, but it also constitutes assault. A similar trend that caught on and can still be found all over social media involves just straight-up smacking people in the face.
Pushing the Boundaries
I have a fair amount of tolerance for outside-of-the-box thinking, but the way these acts spread over social media seems to apply a proverbial Novocain to our collective conscience.
Don’t believe me? Run a search on the newly popular practice of “stealthing.” The name may not tip you off, but this is the act of removing a condom during sex without alerting one’s partner. The idea spread over social media and is being passed off as a prank.
There’s nothing remotely funny about this. It’s depressing that people even consider reproducing such a practice after they read about it on social media, as if that makes it acceptable.
Stealthing has already captured the attention of lawmakers, who are changing our legal code to recognize this as an act of sexual assault after many women contacted the authorities. Changing a consensual act into a non-consensual act, stealthing can lead to unwanted pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases. It should, and very well could, be considered an act of rape.
The Bottom Line
Social media has forced us to accept some terrible realities about ourselves. You can ask whether these things would have happened had social media not been there. I won’t be the one to say they would not. Humans are capable of terrible things, but we can still choose to live above them.
Every time these harmful practices were promoted via a social networking tool, someone decided to move them along. That they didn’t think twice tells us that something in our culture is too tolerant of the de-humanization of those outside our immediate social circle.
It’s not a new issue. Anonymity and the de-humanizing power it provides has long been something that tends to bring out the worst in humans. Even off the internet, we see this to be true. For example, the widespread notion that people are at their worst when behind the wheel because they don’t have to look someone in the face while spiting them frequently proves itself true. The fact that over half of deadly collisions are the result of mere road rage is very telling. The unfortunate truth is that when given the mask of an online avatar, the safeguard of a windshield or the simple ability to cut and run, many humans will routinely choose to take the low road.
Who we are isn’t defined by the worst of us, though. So do better. Take a stand against the exploitative use of social media:
- Report harmful posts.
- Don’t associate with those who send them.
- Be careful of what you post yourself.
We created this new culture, but future generations will have to live in it. We can help to shape what our children will consider valuable and acceptable social conversation.