“The Internet is an interruption system. It seizes our attention only to scramble it.” – Nicolas Carr
This summer my co-facilitator, writer and good friend Christina Antonick, and I have been writing internet safety curricula for SWOVA and the youth of the Gulf Islands. Our curricula address sexting, cyberbullying, addiction, healthy relationships and finally, the use violent pornography. We are living in a world where violence – largely men’s violence – is tearing at the fibres of not only our societies but ourselves. As per usual, there’s been a lot going on in the world. However, this summer is unique, and if you ask people what stands out for them as we move into fall, many people will no doubt say the suicide of Robin Williams. I echo that sentiment. He was an amazing man and actor who made us laugh, cry and see our true vulnerability, and in effect, our humanity.
If we define violence as: “words or actions which harm ourselves or another person,” is there anything more violent that taking one’s own life?
We wrote the curricula this summer because the lives of young people, as they live them out online are in serious jeopardy. Of course, any loss of life is significant and worthy of mention, but I am always struck by the celebrity phenomenon whereby the death of a celebrity is infinitely more newsworthy. Of course many people loved Robin Williams, and so this outpouring of grief coupled with nostalgia is normal and in many ways healthy.
I was at the Ending Violence Association of BC’s annual conference last November. I was walking down a hallway when Amanda Todd’s mother came walking towards me. We were there doing a cyber-bullying workshop. I was ready to introduce myself to her, but before I could she said hello to me. I asked how she knew me, and she said that her and her friends had screened on her living room wall, a Legacy Event from Salt Spring Island in which I had given a speech. I was floored that she had recognized me, and shown the video that some Salt Springers had made. She remarked that Port Coquitlam had not held a legacy event. My jaw hit the proverbial floor, and my heart sank for a community that would not acknowledge grief and remembrance of a tragic loss. In comparison, celebrity can cause the whole world to remember, even though the whole world clearly does not know that person. Connection had once again been lost.
A couple of days ago a youth in circle asked us why we have to talk about teenage suicide. “It’s so depressing,” he remarked. We wrote the curricula this summer because every year in Canada more than 300 youth take their own lives. Much of this is because of violence they experience in the online world. I’m not talking solely about the notorious and tragic cases like Amanda Todd or Rehtaeh Parsons. There are youth the country and world over, who experience social isolation, ridicule, harassment, verbal abuse and sexual exploitation on the internet, and they just don’t want to live in this world where the violence they are experiencing tears them to shreds and makes them want to leave.
I experienced social isolation for two and a half years in high school. I ate lunch alone, had very few friends, and suffered extreme loneliness, in a time when I needed friendship. Never once did I contemplate ending my own life. I was lucky I suppose. Of course it brings up feelings of sadness to talk about this topic, but it is necessary because so many youth are marginalized and seek out connection via the internet – youth like Amanda Todd.
Neurology shows that when people experience exclusion and isolation, the brain reacts with pain-like responses. It feels incredibly uncomfortable when we want to be extroverted and to have friends we can’t have. I’m not sure what Robin Williams felt. I’m not sure what each youth feels who walks into circles or when they experience violence online. As Brene Brown says: when she asks people about connection, they speak of disconnection and feeling lonely. The new R+R Internet Safety curricula is about helping people feel more connected, and staying safe in the process Once again I will say that I feel truly, profoundly grateful to be involved with such an amazing organization that would conceive of such a program. I am a lucky man. Thank-you SWOVA.
By Kevin Vowles, R+R Facilitator
SWOVA – Empowering Youth for a Better Tomorrow