Sunday, June 5, 2011

Responsible Users

I am reading, this morning, a wonderful blog piece by John T. Spencer about social media. The upshot is that we get what we put into something like Facebook and it is capable of showing us the best and worst of human qualities (and everything in between) because it is a vessel WE fill. Of course, the blog is trying to uncover all the deep and wonderful exchanges between people, comments and conversations both personal and public about topics that range from philosophy to politics. I agree that these are evident in large quantity if a person looks for them and contributes to them.

The defense of Facebook and other social media comes about, in the blog I’ve been reading, because many people are accusing social media of being the cause of bullying, or furthering its harm. The arguments range from online conversations being more “public” and “shallow” than other interactions. The counter argument is that written notes and cafeteria bullying is just as hurtful and capable of doing damage, including starting rumors and making personal attacks. The cause of bullying, just as the cause of empathy and understanding, is human. We have the good, the bad, the shallow and the deep within us and we make the world around us what it is.

I have no problem with most of this discussion. I’ve argued for many years that it’s not the television nor the computer that’s at fault for some of the trash that people watch and use. The media are not the problem -- lack of adequate education from parents and teachers and friends causes poor judgement and thoughtlessness. Poor or non-existent character education, formal and familial, is more important than misjudging machines for our flaws. I still believe this, but it brings me to a larger concern.

What about gun violence? The argument of the gun lobby has always been that it’s not guns that hurt people; it’s people who hurt people. Banning guns doesn’t solve that problem, they say. I’ve never wanted to even think about that slant when I’m petitioning for better gun control laws. Now I’m forced to think about whether or not the same rationale should be applied to computers and televisions. Should we use the law to control what people see and use? Oh, wait. In television and movies we already do that! We have ratings in place, we outlawed particular commercials, and we limit viewing of some behaviors to specific hours on tv or to cable stations. As far as computer safety is concerned, there are some laws protecting copyright, financial privacy, and punishing hacking and piracy. Many universities have courses in media literacy; elementary, middle and high schools most often have classes in digital safety at the very least. Many states have begun to legislate against bullying, in all forms. Is any of that enough to stop a child or teen from writing a damaging message on paper or on a screen? Does any of that protect against a person opening a social media account under a false name and spreading rumors? What laws protect against an unstable person acquiring a weapon and using it against innocent bystanders?

So, should there be more regulation of social media to protect us from the poor judgement of others, often cloaked in anonymity? Do we need more and better education and can we provide that if we’re not using the media as a teaching tool? Does the use of the media contribute to the suicide rate and is it at all like careless gun use contributing to the murder rate? What is the role of the professional educator? of the parent? of a legislature? I don’t have answers and I welcome a discussion of your thoughts and ideas about these troubling issues.