Last month, two news stories hit the Palo Alto community in the same week — one having to do with streaking on a high-school campus and the other with teenagers possessing, wielding and feeling the sticks and stones of social media. The former story, utterly inconsequential in the larger scheme of things, created a bustle of public comment (150 entries on PaloAltoOnline) while the latter, which is at the very core of the larger scheme of things and of our kids' lives, was met with virtual silence (12 entries). Adult commentators like to get down into the weeds, in some cases. But to our kids, streaking is no big deal.
Social media is.
This newspaper's serious, reflective, well-reported, un-sensationalized cover story (http://www.paloaltoonline.com/news/show_story.php?id=30637 ) last month, set before us in detail the ways in which Palo Alto's young people are using the likes of Facebook, Tumblr, Formspring, Ask.fm, Flickr, and Snapchat (and God knows what else, because it's a sure thing we adults never will) to post online gossip about each other that is instantly available, goes everywhere, is fueled by anonymity, and is permanent. In the old days foul words and phone numbers could be printed on bathroom walls; now, it's as if they can be written in the sky, indelibly.
As the Weekly reported, our kids are doing it all, online: name-calling; jockeying for social power; spreading sexually explicit rumors, taunts and innuendo; piling on by clicking "Like"; posting humiliating snapshots, taken even in class. The online language used, and its unlimited diffusion, one administrator told the Weekly, is like "water torture, drip drip, drip, eating away at young people's self-esteem." Of our school-kids, a Palo Alto Police resource officer said, "I guarantee that there's much more cyberbullying than there is bullying and that 99 percent of it is unreported." In the old days, social malice was fired off as if by machine-gun; now it is a weapon of mass destruction.
And in news that doesn't come without acute pain to our town, a recent New York Times featured a story headlined: "Suicide of Girl After Bullying Raises Worries on Web Sites." This happened in Florida, but anyone who's been spotting similar headlines from other public-school communities (Campbell, Glendale, and so on) doesn't need much help imagining the inevitable details: a 12-year-old who was "smart and pretty"; fellow middle-schoolers who sent her hate-filled messages, including "Can u die please?"; a school district that points out it "has an extensive anti-bullying campaign and takes reports seriously"; a somber county sheriff who is contemplating felony charges; a bewildered and grief-wracked mother whose daughter had, to all appearances, seemed happy; a high tower at an abandoned cement plant. For a community like ours, such a story is beyond sadness; it's a stab to the heart.
And yet the Times, as did the Weekly, smack on its front page, reminds us of facts we need to face. "In jumping," writes the Times' national reporter, "Rebecca becomes one of the youngest members of a growing list of children and teenagers apparently driven to suicide, at least in part, after being maligned, threatened, and taunted online."
No amount of monitoring by principals or vice-principals or counselors or parents will ever be able, not in a million years, to comb through all of the social-media haystacks — large or small or yet to be created — for all the teenage needles of "You're fat" or "You're ugly" or "You have no personality." In the old days such things might have been spotted in wall-graffiti or a note left in the wastebasket — but the world has changed. We build the websites and buy our children the devices and we even (why? oh why?) permit the devices' use during the educational day at our schools. The terrible news in Glendale last year was that the boy leapt from a roof right on the campus, as others watched.
But there's good news from Glendale too, thank God, and it's just as important: Their district has contracted with an online watchdog, Geo Listening Services, that does what individual grown-ups cannot — scans the online "public square" that our teenagers frequent, and regularly informs school administrators of the most deeply concerning things that, posted for all to see, are being said and done there. This is no different from stationing a vigilant teacher on the playground at recess, or assigning a caring vice-principal to the quad at lunchtime. And such watchfulness is exactly the same, too, as being alert to whether our teens are getting in over their heads with drinking or drugs, driving or sex.
In Glendale, already, when school authorities were tipped off that a student had indicated, online, a strong impulse to self-harm, the student and family were contacted and counseling begun; and the district feels it has saved a life. In cases of cyberbullying, when it's detected, a school can simply do what has always been done: become watchful for the victim, and call the bully into the Main Office for a serious heart-to-heart.
And if something like Geo Listening isn't the answer, what is? Tell me. Tell us. Tell our kids. Be thoughtful then act. Because surely, surely, those of you reading this aren't so busy or unimaginative or unfeeling — not here in Palo Alto, not now — as to do nothing.