The realities of social media and bully

A look into how social media is changing the role of bullying in the gay community.

By Michael O’morrow [contributor]

Dan Savage, renowned columnist and an openly gay man, launched the “It Gets Better” project in September 2010 in response to teenage bullying and resulting gay teen suicides. The message is one of hope, aimed at encouraging those youths who are suffering, while condemning the actions of the bullies, questioning why this issue remains, and pushing for action and change.

Jennifer Breakspear works as the Executive Director of QMUNITY, British Columbia’s resource centre for the gay, lesbian, transgendered and bisexual community. She supports the “It Gets Better” project, and empathizes with struggling youth.

“Being a teenager sucks,” she says. “And being a teenager who is different sucks even more.”

Breakspear argues the cause of bullying amongst teenagers is rooted in the messages our young people receive.

“If someone is at all inclined to push power dynamics, to lord something over someone else, it can only be fed if they’re hearing things elsewhere that substantiate that behaviour.”

She says the positive messaging that youth receive starts at home. It must be reinforced in schools, and be supported by traditional media. But as young people continue to turn away from traditional media outlets, she worries about the messages spread by social media.

“It concerns me what young people can watch and hear on websites like Facebook and YouTube,” she says. “These sites aren’t moderated, and anybody with access to a computer can sit down and post a video or comments ranting against a segment of the population. While most people would hopefully see him or her as a raving idiot, if an individual is at all impressionable and open to those ideas, it seeps into their subconscious.”

Hate crimes are extreme examples of bullying and have been linked to various attacks on members of the LGBT community in Vancouver over the last two years. While it is important to recognize hate crimes as they occur in that community, Indira Phrast argues we mustn’t forget the other marginalized groups who suffer as well.

“Hate crime has been very much tagged with the gay and lesbian community and we need to ask ourselves why that is. We can’t forget the other communities who face this struggle as well, including the Jewish, Muslim, and South Asian populations.”

Phrast is the coordinator of the sociology department at Langara College. She has worked as an activist and regularly speaks out on issues of civil equality and hate crime. She supports the LGBT community in their fight against bullying and hate crime, but she also argues there is a double standard.

“Canada is marketed in the world as a multicultural society,” she says. “Because of that we need to maintain an image that we are tolerant.”

Phrast argues that violence blatantly motivated by hate often doesn’t reach the media, causing an underrepresentation of hate crime against racial groups. “Nobody dare speak of the racial component of the Reena Virk case. There were so many symbolic indicators of racism in this case, including a cigarette burn in the forehead. Multiculturalism is Canada’s business. Reporting crime that has racial components doesn’t work in the interest of Canada.”

Where Breakspear identified social media as a source for bullying, Phrast argues that our education system isn’t doing enough to teach kids the importance of equality and acceptance.

“I get 18-year-old kids out of high school who have no idea how to think. Somewhere in the last two decades we’ve stopped encouraging our young people to ask questions and challenge the status quo. We need our youth to think critically and start asking why certain messages, positions and stereotypes exist.”

And it is challenging those stereotypes that Phrast identifies as being the first of two steps in reducing bullying and hate crime.

“First, we need to deconstruct stereotypes. People bully and commit hate crime when they believe they are superior to another person, or see that other person as a liability or a threat. We need to stop associating the effeminate stereotype with gay men, the terrorist stereotype with Muslims, and violent stereotypes with South Asian men. When we do that, those populations will become identified as equal to the others.

Second, we need precedent-setting court cases that involve hate crime. We need judges to give harsh sentences to violent offenders and to say this behaviour is not acceptable in Canada. We need our court system to work as a deterrent for anyone considering committing a hate crime.”

Breakspear is encouraged by the recent wave of support for kids suffering from bullying, and hopes that it develops into lasting change.

“It’s easy for the LGBT community to think it has it pretty good. But incidents like we’ve seen in the last two months involving kids and suicides have sparked the community to take notice.”

Flash responses, as Breakspear calls them, are those moments when a community does in fact take notice of an issue. They galvanize a community and bring people around an issue. But those flash responses dissipate with time. While important, Breakspear concedes flash responses don’t bring about long lasting change.

“We need people to get involved long-term in their own way in their own time.  I would love for that to mean volunteering or donating to QMUNITY, but whatever works for the individual and motivates them to work towards a lasting change is important to the cause.”

Phrast is feeling hopeful for the future. Like Breakspear, Phrast agrees it will take more than flash responses to the issue of bullying and hate crime to bring about lasting change.  It will take commitment to the issue, and a willingness to ask questions and challenge current beliefs. Phrast also says it takes strong individuals willing to take charge.

“Some people are meant to lead, others meant to follow. What we need are strong individuals willing to lead, willing to question, willing to challenge. When we find these people, we need to nurture them and clear a path for them to be heard. Then, as others follow, a sustained change will be possible.”

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