The lanky teenager silently cradled his mobile. Tears scattered as he turned towards me. His fear, his confusion, his helplessness were palpable. ‘He said he’s going to commit suicide.’ And there it was. The first confronting social media experience for my son.
I stared at his mobile; Messenger showed half a boy – smiling. Orchestra friends. My empathetic son was shaking, totally focused on keeping his mate alive.
Why? Physically and emotionally abused by his parents because his report card did not reflect what was ordered. My son had already said – it’s just a report.
My son frantically typed – can you talk with our band conductor? Already have. What about your mentor…the school psychologist….apparently support systems were in place. I breathed a quiet sigh of relief – he was not convinced. He kept texting. He looked on Facebook. Another boy had set up a page to like if you wished he were dead. By now I was bitterly regretting agreeing to a Facebook presence.
But as I watched the texting frenzy on Facebook and mobile, I remembered the local boy from my childhood. The one no one knew felt this way. The one we didn’t talk about. The one we couldn’t support because we didn’t know. Yet here, I saw a group of boys supporting two of their mates; one very obviously on Facebook, the other via Messenger and all in my sitting room. Using the very social media that as parents we frequently deplore.
It is so very easy to send careless messages or images, to provoke or tease on any of the social media worlds our children inhabit. And as parents we bemoan the permanency of such exchanges and the seemingly careless attitude our children have towards their postings. We agonise over any sign of mistreatment, or poor representation of the self. And we convince ourselves we are protecting our children. Reminiscent of holding hands to cross the road. What does it mean for our children if we still do this at 15?
Here, in our sitting room, a different experience was evident. Two extremely distraught boys had drawn on their social media networks for guidance and support. Now a cynic could argue they are attention seeking and taking advantage of their friends. Well that’s another issue and one I cannot judge. I don’t know these boys. I can prompt my son to think about it though.
What I saw was a community where the members were all collaborative, were listening and communicating. My son mentally listed mutual friends, selected one and sent him a quick text explaining the situation. As he did, he muttered to me – I think he could help. He returned to his vulnerable friend – will you make it through the night? Yes, I had visions of copycatting – then Messenger pinged – I’ll be OK, help the other boy. He needs more help than I do now.
And I have a theory. Some of these boys have empathy, some have learnt how to be empathetic. And some cannot learn – but my theory is that their school has fostered social skills through collaborative learning activities. Students learn how to listen to their peers, how to share ideas and the confidence through years of practice to argue. They are learning how to be democratic participants in their community. They are learning to think. That’s what I want for my sons.
Photo: Jason Howie, on Flickr